Not With Her, But Not With Him: The Women of the *New* GOPTomi Lahren
Donald Trump’s candidacy has been challenging for most Republican women, to say the least. And the GOP has written them off to an epic degree. Rachael Combe talks to the young, conservative female (and male) activists who are looking past November—and are already at work building a Grand New Party
I’m in the Washington, DC, office of Alex Smith, 27, national chairman of the College Republican National Committee—the first woman ever elected to the position. Her national communications director, Carolina Hurley, 24, sits at a conference table in one corner, and Tim Miller, 34, most recently Jeb Bush’s communications director, sits by Smith’s desk. Smith is a well-spoken attorney, Wonder Woman–ish in height and looks, and relentlessly upbeat about the power of free markets. We’ve all been talking about the opportunities for Republicans they see among young people—they love freedom…they have an entrepreneurial spirit…Hillary’s not their favorite—which Smith is trying to capitalize on. I’ve just made the mistake of bringing up that bromide about young conservatives having no heart and old liberals having no brains, thus neatly managing to insult everyone in the room, since they’re all young conservatives and I’m an old liberal.
“The goal is to show that Republicans have a heart,” Smith insists. “Look at Arthur Brooks [author of The Conservative Heart] at the American Enterprise Institute; House Speaker Paul Ryan’s new agenda when it comes to addressing poverty,” she says with feeling. “There are many different stripes of Republicans.” In other words, they’re not all Donald Trump. “Right now, I think we sometimes get in the way of ourselves in telling our story to young people.”
Or, I wonder aloud, is it impossible to tell your story to young people—or minorities, or women, the other fast-growing voter groups that have rejected Republicans for the last six presidential elections—when your presidential nominee is pulling his talking points straight out of the Drunk Uncle Handbook? What was their strategy for dealing with older voters who think the Republican Party is perfect the way it is—that GOP standard-bearers should be talking more about the evils of gay marriage and how to keep Muslims out of the country? “Are you just waiting for them all to die off?” I joke.
Tim Miller smirks and, very deliberately, looks down at his watch. I get it. Time is on their side.
“Is it better for your outreach if Trump wins or loses?” I ask as we wrap up our interview.
Smith and Miller exchange a glance, and then Smith dodges the question. “The only thing I have control of here is how we talk to young people. So my focus is starting that conversation in the biggest, boldest way possible.” She never says it’s better for her cause if Trump loses—but the more salient fact is that she doesn’t say it’s better if he wins.
Republicans don’t like Hillary Clinton, and Smith and Miller are no exception. Miller cofounded a super PAC to oppose her and cowrote an e-book called Failed Choices: A Critique of the Hillary Clinton State Department. The two reject liberal policies, and they’re not actually rooting for Clinton to win—not exactly. But, among a certain set of young, forward-looking conservatives, a Trump loss, especially a yuge loss, offers an opportunity. Look at it this way: Imagine you’re living in a collapsing old house that’s proving unfixable no matter how much work you do. And then, out of nowhere, that house burns to the ground. It’s horrible and upsetting, yes—but…now you have the chance to build your dream house.
Republicans have been working on the House that Reagan Built for some time now. After Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, the Republican National Committee (RNC) commissioned a study—officially called the “Growth & Opportunity Project” but widely known as the Republican “autopsy.” Its findings were unequivocal: Republicans needed to reach out to millennials, minorities, and women, who felt spurned by the party and considered its positions “stale.” “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents,” the report states. “When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.” The conclusion? Republicans had to overhaul their messaging and increase the number of women and minorities running for office to improve current dismal levels of representation.
Alex Smith and the College Republicans followed up the autopsy with a millennial-targeted report by pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson that found the words young people most associated with the GOP were “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.” The Reagan-era arguments still being employed—trickle-down economics, small government—were meaningless to this generation. When Smith asked focus groups how important it was to fight big government, “We got blank stares,” she says, “and then finally one brave person piped up and said, ‘I don’t know what you mean by “big government”; do you mean there are too many buildings?'” When Smith relayed that feedback to party elders, “they’re like, ‘How could these kids not know what big government is?’ They’re banging their canes on the floor. I’m like, Look at it from this generation’s standpoint: Big is not a bad thing. Big connects us with the whole world. It’s being able to send a tweet out in a second, being able to learn anything we want from YouTube. Big is only bad if it’s intrusive. So now we say we don’t want government that’s in your business.”
The GOP brought in consultants to talk to House and Senate members about how to improve their messaging: Do talk about the economy and “kitchen table” issues, such as taxes, that women care about most. Be innovators on education, immigration, and health care—not the “party of no,” just rejecting Democratic proposals. Don’t dwell on gay marriage, abortion, and other “social issues.”Don’t suggest illegal immigrants should “self-deport.” As the report quoted former congressman Dick Armey, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”
The party finally seemed as if it was going to aggressively recruit female candidates. In June 2013, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) announced Project GROW, a task force headed by Congresswoman Renee Ellmers that would focus on everything from developing a bench of female candidates to raising money for women. And with an eye to taking on EMILY’s List, the juggernaut that elects pro-choice Democratic women, new GOP political action committees cropped up—RightNOW Women; Women Lead—to work alongside already existing GOP women-focused PACs such as Maggie’s List and VIEW PAC.
However, even as Republicans took control of the House and Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, the percentage of female GOP legislators remained stuck at below 10 percent. (On the Republican side of the House, white men make up 89 percent of the caucus, though only 31 percent of all U.S. residents are white men.) Democrats, meanwhile, have inched closer to true diversity, with nearly a third of their caucus comprising women and nearly a third of their members minorities.
By early 2015, the NRCC had folded Project GROW into another talent-recruitment program, the macho-sounding “Young Guns.” Fewer than 20 percent of this year’s Young Guns candidates are female and less than 1 percent are minorities; their average age is north of 50. So basically it’s…older white guys. And according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, this year Democrats fielded nearly twice as many female candidates for statewide and national office as Republicans did (231 to 127). Adding insult to injury, Congresswoman Ellmers, Project GROW’s leader, lost her primary in June 2016 to a male Tea Party-endorsed candidate.
The PACs focused on Republican women have likewise failed to give EMILY’s List a run for its money: According to Federal Election Commission filings, as of May of this year, EMILY’s List had raised more than $30 million since January 2015. (And this is not a fluke because of Clinton’s historic candidacy. In the previous two years the group brought in $44 million.) The largest of the Republican PACs, VIEW PAC, has collected less than $400,000 since January 2015; donations to the other GOP women PACs are significantly lower.
Tellingly, no one I contacted from any of these PACs returned e-mails; ditto the RNC. This reluctance to engage on the Republicans’ woman problem has been exacerbated by Trump’s ascendancy. A publicist for the House conference who’d repeatedly encouraged ELLE to write about Republican women and feminists for this election season suddenly refused to help us anymore. A few days later, it was announced she’d be going to work for Trump.
Republican media strategist Mindy Finn is one of the few people outside of liberal circles actively organizing women under a feminist banner. Last year she founded Empowered Women, a nonprofit dedicated to a bipartisan feminism, with her own network of colleagues. “It felt like warriors in a fight,” she says. “A lot of women tend to be very busy, so we don’t come together often, but we feel like we’re in it together.” The group has grown so much—there are now 1,300 members—that Finn hosted a retreat this spring and has hired staff.
We’re power-breakfasting at a congressionally themed diner near her office. Finn arrived lugging a large bag with high heels poking out. “It’s basically a suitcase for all my stops today,” she says with a laugh. In addition to Empowered Women, Finn has her own digital media consulting firm and works for IMGE, another consultancy; she’s an adviser to the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and she is the mother of two small children.
The first thing she tells me is that she finds this election depressing. And then, without missing a beat, she offers, “I see a lot of silver linings.” The upside of Trump, she says, is that he’s broken the mold for presidential candidates: “Anyone can run for office.” He’s also demonstrated the power of social media to amplify an individual’s voice.
Finn finds Trump’s rhetoric reckless, but she admires all the same how he’s managed to bypass party dogma. And in the resulting disarray, she spots an opportunity. “People took for granted the direction the party was going, so it’s motivating if you want to see it go in a different direction—if you think, as I do, that there’s a lot of value in a strong center-right party that’s more free market, focuses on a free society, Constitutional principles. This is your time, assuming he loses, to step up and be a leader. We’ve seen what the alternative is: It’s a losing endgame electorally. And it’s a losing end game for Republicans like me who see [racism and nativism] as disastrous for our country.
“Only when you hit rock bottom do you rebel,” Finn continues. Center-right women dislike the reputation they’ve acquired as racists who don’t care about the poor, she says, “so now they have to think, Are we doing the best we can to combat that? How do we make sure we’re not Trump? How do we focus on issues like poverty, education?” She’s happy that everyone has to “sharpen their arguments” because they can’t rely on the moral simplicity of a partisan platform. “It’s going to be messy,” she says. “But democracy is messy.”
Finn doesn’t seem pessimistic at all, I have to say. In fact, she’s reassuring me about the prospects for the reemergence of a functional two-party system in our country—which even an old liberal like me heartily favors, by the way. Checks and balances are among the beauties of our system; competing world views yield fresh ideas.
When millennial pollster Anderson was doing her most recent report for the College Republicans, she gave a group of 18- to 29-year-olds of all political leanings a list of attributes with which to create the ideal candidate. Anderson was struck by the popularity of empathy and equality. One item—”cares deeply about racial equality”—was an overwhelming favorite, she says, though many people crossed out “racial” or added in other types of inequality. “We want equality for all,” the group told her. “We see inequality based on class, income, gender, sexual orientation.” While nobody used the term intersectionality, she says, they seemed to believe that all forms of inequality are indeed linked—and that government should address the problem.
In other polls Anderson conducted, millennials balked at the traditional Republican view that “anybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so why should I, as a taxpayer, have to take care of them?,” she says. “They look around and see the wage gap and police brutality and the fight for LGBT rights and say, ‘No, we’ve still got a lot of barriers in our society.’ The idea that gosh, if anybody is plucky and hardworking enough, they can make it—that doesn’t match their reality.”
Women—single women, especially—tend to flock to the Democratic Party for the same reasons, says Rosalyn Cooperman, PhD, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “A lot of women all too well understand working really hard and recognizing a male coworker is getting paid more than you, or struggling to figure out child care or caregiving for an adult parent. This notion of just doing it alone—women already do that, and it’s stressful,” she says. Thus rhetoric about how government should simply leave everyone to her own devices falls flat.
Of course, Anderson and Cooperman are talking about what a bipartisan group of young people or women might want to hear from Republicans—but can you curry their favor without repelling the people who are already voting for you? Among the idols of College Republicans, according to Carolina Hurley, is Tomi Lahren, 24, the host of a conservative talk show, Tomi, on Glenn Beck’s network, TheBlaze. Lahren is a good example of someone who would reproach the party for embracing identity politics. She has the platinum-blond beauty of a stereotypical head cheerleader, but cheerful is probably not the first word you’d use to describe her onscreen: Fierce and furious is probably more like it. She has become notorious for pushing back—hard—on the Black Lives Matter movement. Most recently she accused actor Jesse Williams of instigating a “melanin showdown” with his impassioned speech on race and police brutality while accepting a humanitarian award from BET. In her televised op-ed, Lahren insisted that black people are already equal and don’t “need special treatment or gold stars for your existence.” She was widely criticized.
When we spoke on the phone she was friendly and relaxed compared to her TV persona, but she was as unsympathetic to women who complain about sexism as she is to people of color who point out the realities of racism. “It’s become about getting things for free and man bashing. Feminism used to be about equality, but now it’s like, ‘Poor me, I’m slighted, pay for my birth control.’ I don’t wake up and wish someone would pay for my birth control. I worry about my paycheck or my parents.”
And yet, confusingly (at least to me), she doesn’t deny that racism and sexism exist. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen; it certainly does. I get paid less than the men here; it drives me crazy,” she says. Still, she’s determined to get herself out of her own gender-based predicament. “I’m going to keep working my ass off, and one day I’ll be able to call my own shots. That’s going to be my best revenge, not begging for special treatment.”
It is this belief that racism and sexism are personal problems—not collective—that perhaps most obstructs not only a rebooted Republicanism, but getting more conservative women and minorities elected…which, of course would help reboot Republicanism (chicken, egg, chicken, egg, infinity). There is no way for the Republican Party to better reflect the electorate without a substantial infusion of time and money to the cause. “If you re-ran history without EMILY’s List, I don’t think you’d see as large a party gap [in female representation] as we see today,” says Kira Sanbonmatsu, PhD, a professor of political science at Rutgers. “But there’s less emphasis on what’s sometimes called ‘groupness’ on the Republican side. There’s just less of an ideological interest in seeing women elected.” Many Republican women pointed out that EMILY’s List isn’t solely about electing Democratic women—it’s also about electing pro-choice women. But none of them could come up with a single female-specific issue that Republican women and donors would rally around with equal fervor.
Further adding to the party’s hesitation about courting women candidates is the perception that they’ll be more moderate than men (though the data actually show that female Republicans are just as partisan these days). “So when folks within the Republican party say ‘We need to elect more women,’ it sometimes may be taken as ‘We need to be less conservative,’ ” says Cooperman—and many conservatives obviously don’t cotton to that.
In the absence of a coordinated, well-funded EMILY’s List–size effort, however, political scientists see few pathways for Republicans to meaningfully alter the makeup of their caucus. For starters, studies have shown women need to be asked to run, says Laurel Elder, PhD, professor of political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. “Politics have been male dominated for centuries, so there’s still this socialization that men are more likely to think of a career in politics,” she says. Republicans are aware of this—it’s in the Growth & Opportunity Project—but no one in the party wants to appear to be trying to meet a quota, Elder says. “They think it should be the best candidate, and if the best is a woman, great; if it’s a man, that’s great, too.”
Jennifer Lawless, PhD, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, DC, points out that it defies reason that the best candidate would be a man 9 times out of 10. “There are some great male candidates out there, but there are also some crummy ones. So imagine being able to substitute great women for some of the crummy ones.” In her new book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, Lawless contends that there’s no disadvantage for either party to running a female candidate—her research shows that they now win general elections at the same rate as men, and there’s no evidence that voters or the media are biased against them, despite impressions to the contrary.
For Republicans who view recruitment of people of color and people of vaginas as soft-headed affirmative action, there are hardheaded reasons to take diversity seriously. As Lawless observes, you want to be drawing the best and brightest of all groups, not just of middle-aged Caucasian men. Studies also show women put different types of legislation on the agenda; they’re more likely to search for answers to challenges their own sex faces, such as family leave and child care. For Republicans, upping the female count is also just a matter of enhancing the party’s optics. “Not fielding female candidates perpetuates this idea that there’s really only one party hospitable to women,” Lawless says. “And that can’t be in the Republican party’s interests.” Finally, there is a “role model effect.” Seeing women on the hustings tends to boost female voters’ investment in politics, Lawless maintains, mobilizing them to become more reliable voters.
Which is not to say that there’s any proof that women will cross partisan lines to vote for a woman because she’s a woman (if female Republicans vote for Hillary this fall, it will be because she’s not Donald Trump—as longtime GOP operative Katie Packer put it, Clinton’s message is “‘I’m not a racist, fascist, misogynist bully.’ It’s a winning message!”).
Trump is the flip side of this equation: A candidate who seems hostile to women and minorities could make Republican women and minorities stay home. Seventy-three percent of female registered voters have an unfavorable opinion of him, as do 74 percent of millennials, 87 percent of Latinos, and 94 percent of African Americans. “These are numbers like we’ve never seen,” Lawless says. “Even if a male candidate believes these things, it’s never occurred to anybody that this would be a smart strategy to pursue. Because you’ve basically got to motivate every Neanderthal man out there for it to work.”
Further, many of Trump’s policies are diametrically opposed to the “New Republican” brand people like Alex Smith and Paul Ryan are trying to sell. For example, Arthur Brooks, the patron saint of New Republicans, is an enormous fan of free trade. In his books and TED talk, he cites it as the mechanism that has lifted 700 million people out of poverty around the globe and raised the standard of living for Americans as a whole.
Trump’s racially divisive comments have set back efforts to welcome minority voters—to say the least. While the majority of African Americans haven’t cast their ballots for a Republican president as far back as the data goes (1936), the degree to which Trump is alienating Latinos, who aren’t as monolithically Democratic, is striking. (George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.) Several prominent Latino Republicans have announced that they won’t vote for Trump—Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Congressman Carlos Curbelo—while others, like New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Senator Marco Rubio, are undecided or offering only grudging support. After Trump became the presumptive nominee, Ruth Guerra, 28, the head of Hispanic media relations at the RNC, quit her job to go work for a PAC. Colleagues told multiple media outlets that she’d been uncomfortable working for the Donald, though she insisted to me that her new job was just a better opportunity. Trump’s comments about the Hispanic community being rife with rapists and criminals were inaccurate, but they didn’t throw her off her own course. “I know the contributions that Hispanics make. I’m confident in the community, their values,” she says. “Nobody is going to come in and shake that belief.”
Packer, leader of the #NeverTrump-promoting Our Principles PAC, tells me about going onReal Time With Bill Maher this summer. The other panelists were insisting all Republicans were racist and always had been, while Packer was standing up for her party and herself. “Not all Republicans are racist,” Maher finally allowed. “But if you are a racist in America and you’re looking for a political party…” The choice was pretty clear in 2016, he suggested, and Packer had to agree. “From a moral standpoint,” she says now, with a touch of black humor, “I’d like to go back to a situation where you have two candidates who reject racism, so it’s not such an obvious choice for the Ku Klux Klan.”
Packer founded Our Principles to try to stop Trump’s candidacy. But failing to achieve that, she deactivated the PAC’s work, she says, in an effort to reduce the excuses available to Trump backers if he loses. She foresees them rationalizing a loss by blaming the establishment for not getting behind him, blaming donors for not writing checks. “They aren’t going to force him to own any of his weaknesses,” Packer says—and she doesn’t want to make their snow job any easier.
She wants everyone who championed Trump to face the facts, because even now, there remain establishment folks who won’t.
Mitt Romney’s annual E2 Summit in June was a locus of anti-Trump activity this year. Anderson was given a coveted speaking spot, which she used to broadcast the news she’s been trying to get across starting with her graduate thesis after the 2008 election: Republicans ignore millennials at their peril. She told the crowd that her polling shows the youth vote values empathy and hard work, and she emphasized areas where she thought conservatives could make progress connecting with them. “Things were going well,” she told me. Anderson could see the Republican elite in the audience absorbing her arguments, taking her seriously.
When she finished, veteran pollster Frank Luntz took the stage. Luntz, some 22 years Anderson’s senior, helped develop Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. “That was a fine presentation,” Anderson says he told the crowd. “But I hate millennials. They’re all entitled, they all want free stuff, and they’re never going to vote, so forget them.” The Baby Boomermachers who’d just been “nodding along with my whole presentation were all laughing and now nodding at Frank. ‘Ah yes, he’s so funny and right.’ And so here I thought I’d taken a step forward, and immediately we took two steps back.” (Luntz would not confirm that he made this comment: “Nothing I said at the Romney program is public,” he e-mailed ELLE. “Nothing. I did not say that.”)
Anderson’s not convinced that Trump will swiftly bring in a new dawn for Republicans. “I don’t think it will just come naturally to pass that a Trump defeat ushers in [the Arthur Brooks] brand of conservatism,” she says. “[Republicans] will have to fight for it.” But she remains undaunted. “I think part of the reason I’m not deterred—and this could honestly be a disastrous flaw,” she says, laughing, “but I’m pretty darn convinced I’m right. I’ve done my research. Twenty years from now I’m going to be proved right.”
Anderson makes the same point Miller did in the offices of the CRNC: She can afford to hunker down for a long battle. After four or even eight years of a Clinton presidency, this next generation of Republicans will still be in the prime of their careers and ready to take their shot at the White House. Slightly older staffers, however, may think Trump is their only option, so they keep their mouths shut and sign on, perhaps against their better judgment. “I hope to have a long time in this game,” Anderson says. “And I know that Trump goes down on your permanent record.”