WASHINGTON― When Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by double digits among women in 2012, it seemed as if the GOP’s “woman problem” had hit its nadir.
Conservative state legislatures across the country appeared obsessed with restricting abortion. Romney had awkwardly boasted in a debate that he had “binders full of women” from which he could staff his administration as Massachusetts governor. Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin said women who are victims of “legitimate rape” cannot get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” Conservative mega-donor Foster Friess quipped that “gals” should just put aspirin “between their knees” to prevent pregnancy.
It all added up to calamity for the Republican Party. Female voters soundly rejected Romney, Akin and other male GOP candidates in 2012. A record number of Democratic women were elected to office. And frustrated Republican leaders ordered a full autopsy of the party to diagnose its image problems.
“They did a whole lot of self-examination after the election and came to the conclusion that women didn’t like what they were seeing ― old, rich, grouchy white men that they didn’t have a lot in common with,” Katie Packer, a strategist the GOP enlisted to help repair its image, told The Huffington Post on Monday.
Instead of emerging from the ashes of that autopsy as a more women-friendly party, the GOP has instead gone in the exact opposite direction. The Republican Party has sewed up its corpse and sauntered back out of the exam room a grotesque, Frankenstein’s-monster-like version of its former self. Even its own members view it as far more terrifying to women than it was before, with an openly misogynistic leader who once boasted that he could “grab” women “by the pussy” because he’s a celebrity.
“I think we’re seeing the difference now between real attacks on women and what was very much fabricated in 2012,” Packer said. “One of the reasons I got into this business of trying to help the party message to women is because I did feel like a lot of the attacks on men were unwarranted and unfair and hyper-politicized.”
“Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ comment was poorly worded, but the sentiment behind it was something we should be supporting as women ― that he was actively looking for capable, qualified women to serve in his administration,” she continued. “Now we’re seeing the difference between ‘inarticulate’ and ‘total disregard and disrespect for women.’”
The problem facing Republicans is not just Donald Trump himself. It’s that Trump has forced many of them to make a choice between embracing his extreme sexism, fat-shaming, racism and xenophobia, or alienating the Trump supporters in their districts. For some, the latest scandal involving the Republican nominee ― a 2005 hot mic moment in which he talked about grabbing a woman’s genitalia ― was the last straw. Dozens of GOPers have since rescinded their support.
But others have stuck by Trump. And it has put them in highly embarrassing situations, where they’ve had to defend and explain the indefensible.
“I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told The Weekly Standard in the spin room after Sunday night’s presidential debate. “I think that’s a stretch. I don’t know what he meant.”
Even the Republicans who finally dropped their support for Trump this weekend have had to answer why this moment was their last straw. After all, the celebrity politician has openly and regularly denigrated women during the campaign, attacking a fellow candidate’s face, a fellow candidate’s wife’s looks, and even weight-shaming a former Miss Universe. But up until Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was still planning to share a stage with Trump at a campaign event; Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called him a “role model” and was planning to vote for him; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is still holding a Supreme Court vacancy empty for him.
“They’re digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. ”It’s been this balancing act ― how much can you take? How much can you say, ‘I don’t endorse, but I support’? It’s a very complicated situation for these folks who are running for office, who are tethered to him, but haven’t stood up to him.”
For Republican operatives, the long-term damage inflicted by the Trump campaign is daunting to consider. Heading into 2016, Trump and the GOP needed to appeal to more women voters to have a shot at victory. Now the party is just hoping to stop the hemorrhaging of female supporters it once had. White women with college degrees used to be a GOP-leaning demographic. Now they are defecting from the party in droves.
Republican women, in particular, seem frustrated by the choice they have to make. One activist, Marybeth Glenn, expressed outrage in a series of scathing and widely shared tweets on Monday night.
“I, a conservative female, have spent years defending the Republican Party against claims of sexism,” she wrote.
Considering that women made up 53 percent of the electorate in 2012, the defection of Glenn and others could prove catastrophic for Trump and the GOP at large. Obama, after all, was propelled to victory over Romney in 2012 by a much-touted gender gap of 10 percentage points. A new PPRI/The Atlantic poll shows Hillary Clinton with a 33-point lead over Trump among women ― 61 percent of female voters are inclined to support her, with only 28 percent planning to vote for Trump.
“Potentially, we could see the largest gender gap in this election that we have ever seen,” Walsh said.
Packer believes the GOP can repair its image with women after this election cycle, starting by taking a “very strong stance” against Trump’s rhetoric. But it could take some time for female voters to forget who the Republican Party once nominated as its leader.
“I believe Trump’s going to lose,” she said, “and it’s going to take a little while to wash off the stench of him from our party.”
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.