GOP fears Trump slump for North Texas women ahead of 2018 races

Keller voters leave and arrive at their respective polling place during local elections at Bear Creek Intermediate School Saturday in a spring election.
Keller voters leave and arrive at their respective polling place during local elections at Bear Creek Intermediate School Saturday in a spring election. Bob Booth

Texas Republicans badly need the grassroots efforts of North Texas women to win local and congressional races next year.

But getting their support — and enthusiasm — could be a challenge.

Long the backbone of local Republican groups, these women handle get out the vote efforts, phone banks, polling sites and candidate interviews. They play an integral role in keeping North Texas counties some of the most reliably red urban counties in the nation.

These women have traditionally supported mainstream Republicans, including female leaders such as Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and former Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

But women were not overly enthusiastic about Donald Trump in 2016, who won Texas by 9 percentage points, the smallest margin of any GOP presidential nominee in decades. Women made up 53 percent of the electorate in Texas in 2016, but Trump trailed Hillary Clinton 49-47 percent among women voters, according to network exit polls.

Last month, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune state survey found Trump’s approval among women at 39 percent, compared to 52 percent among men.

Republican leaders in Fort Worth said the lagging support from women could be a problem for GOP candidates next year.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, faces a challenge from El Paso Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who remains an underdog but has kept pace in fundraising.

Democrats have already put field staff in three GOP-held congressional districts that the party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, won in 2016. They’re targeting Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions, San Antonio Rep. Will Hurd and Houston area Rep. John Culberson.

Down ballot, a coalition of Democratic strategists with national ties have made it their mission to recapture a Tarrant County state Senate seat currently held by Cruz ally Konni Burton.

“It’s well known around here that you need to work with the Republican women’s clubs to be a successful candidate,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in an interview with the Star-Telegram last week.

“[Candidates] show up and speak at the Republican women’s meetings, they attend the coffees and the club meetings, and they get them to work their fundraisers,” she added. “If they’re less active in 2018, you’d see a big hole in the grassroots efforts.”

Price is a Republican, but the mayor’s office is officially nonpartisan. While she still disagrees with plenty of aspects of Trump’s presidency, she predicted many of his critics wouldn’t hold that against other GOP candidates next year.

“I just think that people weren’t as passionate about this particular candidate,” Price said of Trump. “I think they’ll separate those two things, and you’ll see more involvement in 2018.”

Other Republicans said despite Trump’s 2016 performance, he’s quickly winning over former skeptics in Texas.

Granger told Republicans at a Wise County GOP event in August that she was particularly encouraged by the stability added by Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly.

She reiterated that view this month, saying that despite the “noise coming out of Washington, there is more that binds Republicans together than divides us in the GOP agenda, such as the party’s strategies for job creation.

And, Granger added, “I’m confident that conservatives in Fort Worth and North Texas will unite behind the GOP next fall.”

Trump finished behind Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in Tarrant County’s presidential primary last year. He went on to take 52 percent in the county in November, the worst performance of any GOP nominee since Bob Dole in 1996.

“I have talked to people who voted for every other office except for president… they just didn’t like the man personally,” said Mona Bailey, vice chair of fundraising for the Tarrant County Republican Party.

Bailey was also a Trump skeptic before meeting him a campaign event at the City Club of Fort Worth the August before the election. Of the GOP women she works with, she said many had come around since Trump took office.

“We are happy with Trump. We think we’re headed in the right direction, if only Congress would work with him,” said Bailey.

Many of Fort Worth’s powerful female leaders were Trump skeptics in 2016.

Granger never endorsed Trump after he became the nominee, and called on him to drop out of the race after a 2005 video surfaced of Trump making lewd comments about women. Price avoided public appearances with him in the city, despite pledging to vote for him after he became the nominee.

As Republicans prepare for 2018 races across North Texas, GOP leaders are eagerly looking to re-engage Republican women.

“If Republican women don’t work, then 2018 Republican candidates will not win. And honestly I’m concerned about our state,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned an audience of GOP women at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center last month.

In a keynote address to more than 600 attendees at the Texas Federation of Republican Women convention, Cornyn said Democrats had done well in Houston’s reliably-red Harris County in 2016, and other counties could be next. Clinton finished well ahead of Trump in Harris County, and Democrats picked up a state House seat and a handful of countywide offices.

“It’s not impossible [Democrats] could form a beachhead in other places in our state,” said Cornyn, who is not up for reelection until 2020. “They could win a statewide race, perhaps, and build from that. Or they could win perhaps a couple of congressional seats. And then there’s down ballot.”

Democrats say the pivot from past Texas GOP candidates such as Hutchison and former Governor and President George W. Bush, to candidates such as Trump, Cruz and Burton has opened a space for them to court moderate Republicans — in particular, women.

“They’ve brought in a whole new type of Republican that we hadn’t seen in Texas,” said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle. “It’s created a challenge and an opportunity for Democrats to create room for some of those people in our party.”

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch