Two of New Hampshire’s top Republicans, both of them women with significant political experience, sharply criticized New York businessman Donald Trump on Friday for his words about women, in the aftermath of the first Republican presidential debate.
Their criticism stemmed from Trump’s comments in the first few minutes of Thursday’s program during an exchange with Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly over his past statements about women.
Kelly confronted Trump for previously calling “women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’ ”
Trump first tried to deflect the question (“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he quipped), and then took aim at Kelly herself during the debate and afterward via Twitter, where his account retweeted messages slamming Kelly, including one calling her a “bimbo.”
In New Hampshire, home to the nation’s earliest presidential primary, the state’s leading Republican women called Trump’s comments improper.
“I don’t think women in New Hampshire will appreciate them,” said US Senator Kelly Ayotte.
“Megyn Kelly is an intelligent, educated, successful professional woman, and Donald Trump’s comments were out of line and unacceptable,” said the New Hampshire Republican Party’s chairwoman, Jennifer Horn. “There is a big difference between not being politically correct and being disrespectful, and [Thursday] night Donald Trump was being disrespectful to women.”
It’s unclear whether Trump’s comments about women and his treatment of Kelly will affect his front-runner status nationwide or in the first-in-the-nation primary. So far in his campaign, he’s made disparaging remarks about immigrants and Republican US Senator John McCain’s military service, only to watch his poll numbers rise.
Fran Wendelboe, a longtime New Hampshire Republican official who has had regular contact with Trump’s operation for years, predicted his comments about women will hurt his campaign and hurt the GOP.
“He is saying these things at a time when the Republican Party has an opportunity to reach out to women in 2016,” Wendelboe said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is going to turn people off,” she said. “But then again, I thought that about his comment that McCain not being a war hero, and I was wrong.”
But if Trump’s words reverberate anywhere, it may well be in New Hampshire, a state with a long history of electing women to prominent roles in public life — and a state where Trump has based much of his presidential campaign.
New Hampshire was the first state to be represented in Congress entirely by women. Today, the state’s governor, both US senators, a US House member, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court are all women. What’s more, women make up roughly 30 percent of the 424-member Legislature (and in 2008, voters elected the first female-majority state Senate in the country).
Donna Sytek, who was the first woman to be speaker of the New Hampshire House, said she doesn’t think that Trump’s comments are a reflection of the Republican Party.
“It is part of Trump being Trump. He is trying to be outrageous, and he succeeded,” said Sytek, who is unaffiliated in the race. “I think that anyone watching the debate wouldn’t confuse him as standard bearer of the Republican Party.”
Carly Fiorina, the only Republican woman running for president, and who has devoted much of her campaign to New Hampshire, tweeted Friday night “There. Is. No. Excuse.” after Trump continued his attacks on Kelly during a CNN appearance that evening.
Appealing to women voters is of particular concern to Republicans in 2016. In 2012, President Obama benefited from the largest gender gap in a presidential election in 60 years: 20 points, according to Gallup.
Republican Mitt Romney’s trouble was blamed partly on his clumsy language about women’s issues, including, in a debate, boasting about the “binders full of women” from which he filled key state positions when he was governor of Massachusetts.
According to recent polling of the Granite State, Trump enjoys higher marks from men than women in the Republican Party — not uncommon among the GOP field. A WMUR Granite State Poll from late July showed 55 percent of men had a favorable opinion of Trump, while fewer women — 46 percent — said they had a favorable opinion of him.
Perhaps more concerning for Trump, however, is the portion of women who said they would not support him: 35 percent. It’s the highest rate of any Republican in the field, according to the WMUR poll.
His confrontation with Megyn Kelly started early in Thursday night’s debate in Cleveland.
The crowd laughed at Trump’s Rosie O’Donnell line, but Kelly responded with a list of disparaging remarks he had made regarding several other women.
Trump chalked up his choice of words to “kidding” before taking a swing at Kelly.
“And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
The on-screen exchange is the material of future campaign advertisements, according to Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
“PACs promoting Democratic and progressive issues are likely to run anti-Trump ads featuring his antiwoman comments,” said Bystrom. “If Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee, it is also likely that his Democratic opponent and the Democratic Party could use these remarks against him.”