Donald Trump has called women “fat pigs” and “slobs.” When pressed about that during Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, he shrugged and talked about political correctness, then seemingly insinuated a female moderator was suffering from PMS. Then he suggested the criticism is somehow related to the fact that he’s “so good looking.”
For this, women should thank him.
With his remarks, the real estate mogul has single-handedly cast women’s issues into the spotlight in the Republican primary and by extension the general election. He’s not alone, of course. The likelihood that the GOP nominee will face Hillary Clinton has made Republicans more solicitous of women voters, while a series of undercover videos about Planned Parenthood have brought women’s health to the forefront.
But those other topics are fraught with ambiguity. Trump’s comments are not, which means they cast the reactions of other Republican candidates in a much brighter light.
At first, no one on the GOP stage was rushing to condemn Trump, who is leading in the polls. “When Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his sexist remarks during the debate, it was notable that no other candidate or moderator followed up or called Trump out for his dismissal of Kelly or his denial of the facts—some in the audience even applauded,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “That was the first missed opportunity for his competitors to make clear that they disagreed with Trump’s disregard for women.”
In the days since, some Republicans have finally come out against Trumps’ comments. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, tweeted late Friday, “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.” Bush over the weekend said, “Do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53 percent of all voters? What Donald Trump said is wrong.”
And Trump himself backtracked on the Sunday shows, and is likely to do so again in a primetime appearance Monday night on Fox News. He talked about how he’d be “phenomenal” for women and how he, unlike his rivals, wants “to help the women.”
Now that’s he’s on the defensive, Trump is helping keep the focus on women’s issues.
“Trump is his hitting rivals, such as Jeb Bush, on their actual records and statements,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute. “Trump has definitely opened the door for tough scrutiny of the GOP field on ‘women’s issues,’ and debates over contraception, abortion in cases of rape and incest and funding women’s health that will likely work to the Democrats’ advantage.”
This was always going to be a year where Republicans made a big push to take back the women’s vote, or at least mitigate its loss. So far, Trump aside, they aren’t off to a great start.
In January, House Speaker John Boehner was forced to pull an abortion bill off the floor after all 22 of his female members protested language that would’ve limited an exemption to a ban on 20-week abortions for rapes that have only been reported to authorities. The language was changed and the bill eventually passed. In July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Clinton of playing the gender card right before he kept the Senate in an extra week in a failed attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.
At the presidential debate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker doubled down on their opposition to all abortions except in the case where the pregnancy threatened a mother’s life. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took it a step farther underlining his opposition to all abortions, including in cases where it threatened a mother’s life, saying future generations will “call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies.”
Historically speaking, Republicans should be doing better. The GOP began as the women’s party, championing suffrage 40 years before it became law. Republicans also saw the first woman elected to Congress, the first female speaker of a state house and the first female Supreme Court justice.
But since the late 1980s, and especially after the Clarence Thomas hearings to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991, Democrats began to take over that mantle. Republicans have lost women in every presidential election since 1988 and by far with the largest margin—12 points—in 2012. There are 77 Democratic women in Congress to the GOP’s 27.
Trump’s comments could help Democrats down the road if they end up defining the public perception of the Republican Party in2 016. Or they could help Republicans by forcing them to take a hard look at the issue during the primary.
Either way, as Trump would say, that makes women “winners.”