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‘A difficult situation’: Republican women run in the Trump era

For the past 20 months, four-term Republican Rep. Martha Roby has had to grovel to President Donald Trump to regain her political standing and beat back a primary challenge in her staunchly conservative Alabama district.

Her crime? Standing up for women.

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“I cannot look my children in the eye … and justify a vote for a man who promotes and boasts about sexually assaulting women,” the mother of two said in the fall of 2016.

Needless to say, her constituents — many of them Trump-loving Southern men — didn’t like that much. Roby quickly changed her tune after Trump won the presidency, unfailingly praising him and his policies as she went on to survive a primary runoff Tuesday that almost ended her career.

Roby’s plight highlights the unique challenge Republican women face campaigning for office with Trump in the White House. While their female Democratic counterparts have benefited politically from going against the president on women’s issues, GOP women don’t have the same luxury.

“There are ways of disagreeing without being disagreeable … of doing it without making it personal,” said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, one of the most outspoken women in the House GOP Conference, who frequently votes with the president. “A lot of it is in the approach.”

Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who called Republican women an “endangered species,” was blunter: “The base is with Donald Trump, and he can do no wrong. … He’s going to be hanging on you like an albatross around your neck. Ugh! It is a real knot for female candidates.”

Interviews with more than a half-dozen female GOP lawmakers and candidates revealed what Ros-Lehtinen called the “difficult situation” many of them face: Like male GOP lawmakers who go against Trump, Republican women who blast the president risk alienating a base they need for reelection, as Roby did. Failing to speak up, however, risks turning off independent-minded women who are skeptical of the president, a key voting bloc.

That dual-reality has forced Republican women to think creatively about how to reach female voters. In one of her first campaign ads in a toss-up California district, Rep. Mimi Walters touted her work helping battered and raped women as well as those trapped in the sex trade. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the only Republican woman in congressional leadership, has plastered her competitive Washington district with 14 billboards featuring the faces of women who are supporting her for reelection.

At the same time, voters won’t catch either attacking Trump.

The balancing acts come amid a record-breaking year for women seeking public office. More than 123 Republican women have filed to run for Congress, three times as many as in the previous cycle, according to Wagner, a deputy National Republican Congressional Committee chair.

Still, the energy surrounding female candidates is predominantly on the left side of the political spectrum. Some Republican women say they’ve struggled to ride the wave of empowerment that their Democratic counterparts have.

Some conservatives said the women’s movement has discriminated against conservative-minded female candidates. McMorris Rodgers said female business owners in her district have lost clients because they’ve endorsed her. In response, she created a new group in her district for politically like-minded women.

“For many that are on the left, if you don’t agree with them 100 percent, then you’re ‘anti-women,’” she said in an interview. “Because I’m a Republican, that it’s almost like I’m dismissed or [my work for women] doesn’t count.”

Dana Rohrabacher is pictured. | Getty

But it’s not just Democrats, or Trump, who make it challenging for Republican woman. While Democrats tend to favor female candidates over men, all things being equal, some Republican women say their gender is held against them by a sliver of voters in their party.

“For the men, it is a challenge for a lot of them,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, who’s running for governor of South Dakota, a state she referred to as “a good ol’ boys club.” “For some reason, they were willing to vote to send a woman to Congress for years, but to put a woman in the governor’s office, it’s very different.”

She added: “I didn’t anticipate that being an issue. And we think, in our primary, we lost several points because of that.”

That might be why some Republican women from very conservative districts or states rarely emphasize their gender. Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn — whose allies worry she could lose her bid for Senate because some male Republicans would rather vote for her Democratic challenger, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, because he’s a man — asks people to call her “congressman,” not “congresswoman.”

Similarly, Blackburn’s home-state colleague, Rep. Diane Black (R), went by “chairman” when she became the first head of the House Budget Committee.

“I’ve never run as a female candidate,” said Black, who is running for governor this fall. “I think, for me, I have always felt that it was best to just run as a good candidate… to let my credential speak instead of anything about my gender.”

Black would be the first female Republican governor of her state if elected, but that’s not something she’s touting. “I don’t even go around talking about it because I don’t want anybody to think that is the main purpose that I’m running or that I think that is going to help me win.”

Bob Corker is pictured. | AP

Republican women in competitive seats have a slightly different approach. McMorris Rodgers often talks about her experience getting married while serving in Congress — then becoming the mother of three, including a disabled child. Her personal story, she said, helps voters relate “to me more as a person and also as a representative.”

Despite their different districts and styles, Black and McMorris Rodgers agreed on this: At times they’ve felt left out or unable to identify with the women’s movement pulsing through the nation.

McMorris Rodgers recounted sending a video to organizers of a women’s march in Spokane, Washington, who decided not to show it. Black said she was “affronted” seeing girls age 10 or 11, she guessed, holding signs with curse words and condoms and tampons taped on them when she attended the women’s march in Washington with her daughters last year.

“That is not what I believe we should be teaching our young girls, to tell them that’s what makes them strong,” she said.

Beyond feeling left out of the women’s movement at times, Republican women are often forced to answer for Trump — a reality they find unfair. When confronted with questions about something Trump has said or a policy he’s implemented that is especially unpopular among women, they try to pivot.

“I say, ‘I’m focused on results,’” Walters said when asked in May how she responds to questions about Trump’s tone toward women. “That’s the most important to me, the results.”

Walters said she sees an “opportunity,” where some would see a problem, “to really connect with this group of women where the president is not as well liked.”

“We can be the face of the party to say, ‘Hey, these are policies that we’re implementing with our president, and we support him and … and we’re just like you.’”

When Black is pressed by voters about Trump’s attitude toward women, she said she points to her own experience. As Budget Committee chief, she often met with the president to talk about tax reform and spending and “never did I feel talked down to or disrespected in any way.”

“In fact, the president would often say: ‘Diane, what do you think?’” she recalled. “So when people start to talk [about Trump and women], I say: ‘Well, let me just tell you about my experience.’”

Wagner, likewise, makes the case to women that Trump is good for them by focusing on policy. Mothers want economic and national security, she said, and Trump has contributed to both with tax cuts and negotiations with North Korea.

Women can disagree with Trump, just as men can, Wagner said. They just “have to be clear with both the administration and your constituents where you have strong areas of agreement with the president.”

Questions about what its like to be a women in the age of Trump appear to strike a nerve with some female Republicans. POLITICO reached out to well over half of the female members in the House. But most of them, including Roby, declined to be interviewed or ignored emails.

Approached in the hallways of the Capitol, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who chairs the NRCC’s recruitment, said she’d be willing to arrange an interview on the topic. But her spokesman, Tom Flanagin, subsequently turned down multiple requests over the past few months, first citing scheduling conflicts before eventually acknowledged they’d prefer to “pass.”

Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, one the most vulnerable GOP House incumbents, seemed annoyed by the topic.

“I never get interviewed about all the bills I pass,” she complained. “I can tell you that.”

Republican House members are plainly eager to expand their ranks — several spoke of the shock they felt the first time they walked into the male-dominated House Republican Conference room.

Currently, about 10 percent of the GOP Conference is female, while almost a third of the Democratic Caucus is made up of women. Ros-Lehtinen said Republicans have got some work to do to boost those numbers.

“Things have changed, but for Republican women, sadly the number has more or less stayed at a dismally low level,” she said.

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