Like many Republican voters in Texas, Alice Melancon did not rank Donald Trump as her first choice in the presidential primaries. Or maybe even her second choice.
But once Melancon, a GOP activist in Montgomery County, weighed the alternative, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, she decided to get fully behind Trump, whose history of derogatory comments about women — including, recently, former Miss Universe Alicia Machado — have raised questions about whether he can count on their support in even the reddest of Republican strongholds.
"I wish he hadn’t made them, but I understand it was in another part of his life, and we’ve all said things we wish we wouldn’t have said," Melancon said before bringing up Clinton's remark last month that half of Trump's supporters fit into a "basket of deplorables." "Same thing with Hillary Clinton calling a whole class of people deplorable. What’s worse?"
Trump's days-long confrontation with Machado drew renewed attention to his history of disparaging comments toward women, which Democrats have sought to make a central issue in the home stretch of the race for the White House. And in Texas, it's bringing into relief an uneasiness some Republican and Republican-leaning women have with Trump, even as they express support for him over Clinton.
In solidly red Texas, how Trump performs with women — particularly women in fast-growing suburban counties like Montgomery — is not irrelevant. For years now, Democrats and analysts have been eying the demographic as increasingly competitive, a key part of any equation to loosen the GOP's grip on the state. And Trump appears to have less room for error than past GOP nominees did, with most polls showing him leading Clinton by only single digits in Texas.
Trump's deficit with women may be "the best explanation for Trump's underperformance in the state," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. Pointing to a recent poll showing Trump trailing Clinton among likely female voters by a whopping 24 points in battleground Harris County, Rottinghaus added, "That is the difference between being able to carry the county and not being able to carry the county. If women make up more than half the Republican coalition and you can’t rally them to support you, then it’s difficult to pull the party back together."
Largely skeptical of such polls and dismissive of recent controversies, Trump's female loyalists in Texas argue there is no cause for concern in November.
"Women are behind Donald Trump in the state of Texas, and nationally too," declared Theresa Kosmoski, president of the Texas Federation of Republican Women. As for Trump's supposed women woes, Kosmoski added, "The only place I ever hear that coming out of, really, is mainstream media, and there’s a lot I don’t trust what the mainstream media reports."
"Texas women like people to give it as it is," added Toni Anne Dashiell, a member of the Republican National Committee from Boerne. "He's a bottom-line guy, and that's why I think they're good with him."
In the last presidential election, GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost women to President Barack Obama by 11 points, 44 percent to 55 percent, according to exit polls. Most national surveys have shown Trump trailing Clinton by wider margins among women, including by 18 points in a CBS News poll released Monday.
In Texas, it is not as easy to draw comparisons because exit polling was not done in 2012 at the state level. But compared to 2008, when GOP nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain won Texas women with a slight majority of 52 percent, Trump has underperformed in what few Texas surveys have been done this election cycle and also included a gender breakdown. (A Public Policy Polling survey released in August found Trump losing women to Clinton with 41 percent support.)
"Obviously the man has a problem with women — self-respecting women, anyway," said Toby Marie Walker, a conservative activist from Waco who does not support Trump. "How am I going to look my daughter in the face and say, 'Yeah, sure, that's OK'? How can you do that when you are stumping for a man for the highest office in the nation and condoning and not saying, 'That's not OK'?"
Walker, a longtime supporter of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, also took issue with GOP leaders in Texas, whom she said are enabling Trump by declining to denounce him as his rhetoric toward women shows no signs of softening. She noted that Trump has said things about the opposite gender "that if [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick or [Gov.] Greg Abbott had done, there's no way they'd win a primary here."
In Texas, Trump's campaign has long put an emphasis on female supporters. One of the first announcements made by his Lone Star State team during the primaries — back in December 2015 — was that it had organized a Texas Women for Trump coalition with over 100 members. Trump's statewide leadership team includes a number of prominent female GOP activists, and its vice chair is Dashiell.
Still, Trump's past comments about women seem to be driving resistance among even some longtime Texas Republicans.
"As the father of a 12-year-old daughter, it hurts my heart that the nominee of my party denigrates women based on their looks, and that he would insult God’s handiwork," Eric Bearse, a speechwriter for former Gov. Rick Perry, recently wrote to friends on Facebook. “Our value is not in our appearance, it is the stuff no one can see."
Bearse also shared a link to a Clinton ad that shows young women getting ready in front of the mirror, set to comments Trump has made criticizing women's appearances over the years. "Is this the president we want for our daughters?" reads text on the screen at the end of the commercial.
The Machado episode set off one of the rockiest periods of Trump's campaign, and he initially did not back off from his criticism. In the days following the debate, he said in a TV interview that her weight had become a "real problem" and used a series of tweets to falsely suggest she starred in a sex tape.
Dashiell, the vice chair of Trump's statewide leadership team, said most women she encounters have come to understand there are two sides to Trump: his tell-it-like-it-is public persona and a more compassionate figure behind the scenes. They appreciate both sides, Dashiell added, but they are also looking past his controversial comments to focus on priorities such as security and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"They don’t buy into the hardcore continuous media coverage of it," Dashiell said. "They hear it and then they let it go, and they focus on the issues that are important to them."
- Hispanic Republicans in Texas are grappling with whether to support their party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
- Recent polls have shown a closer than usual presidential race in the Lone Star State.
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.