WASHINGTON — A 47-year-old stay-at-home mother, Gail Noren of Alexandria, Va., is exactly the type of voter Republicans need to win swing states. She’s voted for the Republican on every presidential ballot since she turned 18, starting with George H.W. Bush.
But the prospect that Donald Trump could capture the party’s nomination and bring his trademark bullying style — often aimed at women — to the top of the ticket is making Noren consider sitting out a presidential election for the first time.
“I feel like it’s almost the end of something, like there needs to be a split within the party,” said Noren, who voted for Marco Rubio in the Virginia primary this month. “Trump discourages women like me from going out to vote. A gazillion things that come out of that man’s mouth are offensive.”
Trump’s rhetoric — including his suggestion Wednesday that women who get abortions should be punished if the procedure is ever banned — is sending fear through GOP strategists who say their would-be presidential nominee could lead to losses in battleground states like Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Florida in November.
After his inflammatory remarks Wednesday, Trump reversed course a few hours later and said doctors, not women, should be punished.
His initial remarks, during a taping of an MSNBC town hall meeting in Wisconsin, prompted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to tweet: “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse. Horrific and telling.”
Analysts say Trump is eroding inroads the party has attempted to make since its postmortem analysis of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss recommended greater outreach to women, who make up 53 percent of the US electorate.
The problem for Republicans could be especially acute in wealthy suburbs around the country — such as Alexandria, the Washington, D.C., suburb where Noren lives. College-educated women are a key swing constituency in these areas, and some strategists say that not just the White House is at stake, but also control of Congress.
“We already had a gender gap to make up. Trump has dug that hole deeper,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican analyst in Florida.
A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 73 percent of registered women voters hold an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 57 percent of men. Among Republican women, nearly a third would be upset if he won the nomination. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month showed that 47 percent of Republican women would not support a Trump candidacy.
GOP analysts fear that a significant chunk of reliable Republican women voters are so horrified by the thought of a Trump presidency that they would vote for Clinton in November.
“When you’re losing the types of women Republicans typically win and have to win, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican consultant from Alexandria.
Just a year ago, Matthews was conducting focus groups on how a Republican presidential candidate might contrast himself with Clinton in debates over policy matters, but still show respect on stage by addressing the former secretary of state as “Secretary Clinton.”
“It seems so quaint and all so irrelevant now to focus on those fine points because we’ve got Donald Trump the bulldozer,” Matthews said.
In response to questions about his standing with women voters, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said he would “do more for women than any other candidate.”
“Mr. Trump has received great support from women in each of the primary elections because women, and all Americans know he will Make America Great Again,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Among the states that have voted thus far, Trump has faced an average gender gap of 6 to 7 points, with a higher percentage of male voters supporting him, according to exit polls. In Michigan and Alabama, the gap was 16 points. Women in Iowa, Nevada and Vermont, however, supported Trump almost at the same rate as men.
Pockets of female Trump supporters exist even in northern Virginia, which overwhelmingly supported Rubio, said Linda Bartlett, president of the Virginia Federation of Republican Women.
“The myth that the people who are supporting Donald Trump are all angry white men is totally bogus,” Bartlett said. “I have members who are not only educated but sophisticated and cosmopolitan who have lived all over the world who are supporting Donald Trump.”
Bartlett was unable to connect a reporter with any of the Trump supporters.
Voters got a taste of Trump’s style of insult last August when he clashed with Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, who asked him about his history of comparing women to “fat pigs,” “dogs” and “disgusting animals.” Trump subsequently insinuated that Kelly questioned him harshly because she was menstruating, saying she had “blood coming out of her wherever.’’ That spat has turned into a long-running feud in which he continues to criticize Kelly via Twitter, retweeting messages that called her a “bimbo.”
Trump mocked a former rival for the nomination, Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, in a Rolling Stone interview, questioning why anyone would vote for “that face.” This month the former beauty pageant owner courted controversy by tweeting an unflattering photo of Senator Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, a Goldman Sachs executive, next to his own wife, Melania, a former supermodel.
And this week, Trump is further alienating some women voters by vigorously defending his campaign manager after he was charged with battery for grabbing the arm of a young female reporter. Trump accused the woman, Michelle Fields, of exaggerating the incident.
“She didn’t almost fall to the ground,” Trump said at a CNN forum in Wisconsin on Tuesday night. “And by the way, she was grabbing me! Am I supposed to press charges against her? Oh, my arm is hurting.”
Some Republicans themselves, hoping to stop Trump from capturing the nomination, are stoking fires.
Katie Packer, a former Romney strategist who started an anti-Trump super PAC, compiled Trump’s history of remarks into a 32-second ad — “Real Quotes from Donald Trump About Women” — that ran nationally on cable television this month and drew more than a million views on YouTube within its first 48 hours.
The ad, featuring women looking directly at the camera and reciting Trump’s own statements, is now airing in Wisconsin, where the GOP establishment has its next opportunity to stem Trump’s rise, and which votes April 5.
The ad, Packer said, “helped feed this narrative that he’s somebody that women could never support in a general election.”
Fiorina, meanwhile, has endorsed Cruz and is campaigning with Heidi Cruz in Wisconsin this week.
Republican women in Congress are facing pressure to disavow Trump, but those running for re-election are walking a fine line, wary of alienating Trump supporters in their district.
Representative Barbara Comstock, a Republican freshman representing several counties in northern Virginia, recently gave away a $3,000 donation Trump made to her campaign in 2014 following pressure from her Democratic challenger to denounce Trump.
In New Hampshire, prominent Republican women worry that a Trump nomination would hurt the reelection prospects of Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Granite State Republican running against the state’s Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan.
“It can’t be good,” said Juliana Bergeron, a national committeewoman from New Hampshire who says she is resigned to supporting Trump over Clinton if they face each other in November. “He talks about women like we’re stupid and it’s all about how we look. But I find it equally insulting to think that women would just vote for a woman because she’s a woman.”
Beverly Bruce, co-chair of Ayotte’s finance committee, said she is working hard to encourage Republicans disgusted by Trump’s campaign to still turn out in November for Ayotte.
Over a dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes in Ohio this week, a bewildered group made up mostly of women at a Stark County Republican meeting pondered the options in November if Trump becomes the nominee.
“I’ve never been in a presidential campaign when I could not support the Republican nominee, even when we were up against history with Barack Obama,” said Tracey Winbush, an African American talk radio host who serves on the Republican state central committee. “Trump is putting us in a pickle.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.