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Party leaders' rhetoric leaves Texas Republican women reeling

Interviews with Texas Republican female consultants, lobbyists, activists and aspiring politicians reveal a common sentiment: They no longer feel welcome in their own party.

(L-R) Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, U.S. Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi and Bruce Babin,R-Woodville and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump

For many female Texans working in Republican politics, last month's release of a video showing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump boasting about groping women was bad enough. They have since watched in astonishment as male elected officials from their own state have engaged in coarse rhetoric of their own. 

The simmer turned into a full rolling boil on Tuesday, when someone using state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s Twitter account used a four-letter word that is frequently described as “the worst word in the English language.” 

“When I heard about the tweet, I was stunned,” said Jennifer Waisath Harris, an Austin-based public relations consultant with a long history with the GOP. “I have not been surprised with some of the words that came of the commissioner’s mouth ... but it’s one of those words you just don’t utter.”   

The consequences of what Miller’s camp describes as an accidental tweet, juxtaposed with both Trump’s tone and recent comments from two Texas congressmen, has the potential to run off an entire generation of the party's female talent pool, according to several women with strong ties to the party in Texas. They've spent their careers fighting for hallmark conservative values including school choice, opposition to abortion, limited government and a strong national defense.

"I can’t believe he even employs anybody who would post such a thing if he didn’t do it himself," wrote Elizabeth Ames Coleman, a former Texas Railroad Commission chairwoman who also served in the Texas House, in an email. "Is everybody just so desensitized by the barrage of gutter-level talk that they don’t recognize it anymore? How embarrassing to have any Texas elected official perpetuate this kind of discourse." 

Miller's camp immediately deleted the tweet, first claiming the account was hacked but then blaming it on a staffer carelessly copy-and-pasting other's tweets. A spokesman said that Miller shared others' horror around that term, never uses it and avoids objectionable language altogether. 

"People make mistakes," said Miller's consultant, Todd M. Smith, in an interview. "There are errors that happen in campaigns, especially in this fast-paced world of social media."

"The minute that Commissioner Miller and his campaign became aware of the offensive tweet, it was removed instantaneously, and he issued an apology within five minutes and the centerpiece of that apology was that that term was vile and offensive and had no place in the discourse," Smith said.  

"Everybody makes mistakes," he added. "It’s how people respond to mistakes." 

But in interviews with a dozen female consultants, lobbyists, officials and aspiring politicians, the refrain was clear: These conservative Texas women no longer feel welcome in the party they have spent decades helping build.

Harris, for instance, fashioned herself as a female “Alex P. Keaton,” the iconic teenaged conservative character from the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. But these days, while she does not see herself switching parties, she considers herself "more and more independent." 

She and these other women fit the ideological profile of traditional conservatism. But their alienation has culminated into votes this year for Evan McMullin, an independent presidential candidate with a GOP pedigree; writing in other names on the ballot; or even casting ballots for Hillary Clinton, a woman they grew up reviling.  

"There’s a common thought process right now with young Republican women, and that is, 'Is this the party for us?’” asked Randan Steinhauser, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, the governing body of the Republican Party of Texas, and a prominent school choice activist in Austin.

In recent weeks, the most outspoken Republican woman in Texas politics has been Jenifer Sarver, a fixture in both Washington and Austin Republican circles dating back to her time serving in the George W. Bush administration and a Republican staffer in the U.S. Senate.

She pinned the blame for the current change in tone on the Republican primary voters who nominated him.

“He’s a disgrace and an embarrassment and has easily coasted into office,” she wrote of Miller in an email. “His use of the ‘c’ word says more about the GOP primary voters in Texas than it does about him.” 

“He is vulgar and offensive and revels in being so,” she added. “I’ve always felt pride in being from a state that supports and nurtures strong women, but this new wave of openly sexist attitudes perpetrated by Texas GOP leaders is disheartening and shameful, and I worry about the message it sends to the little girls in my life."

The Democratic party is not where most of these women see their futures. But many hope their values will win out in an intensive party civil war that they see as inevitable. Otherwise, they expect to work on third-party efforts or leave politics altogether. 

Several of the women interviewed similarly described the sadness of sheltering their children from their lifelong passions for politics. 

The anger right now is concentrated mostly on Miller and Trump, but even more frustrating to the women interviewed for this story was the broader pattern that's emerged.

Early this month, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, brushed off Trump’s vulgar comments as “locker room talk” and suggested he would consider continuing to support Trump even if the nominee bragged about raping a woman. Farenthold quickly walked back the comment, saying he was thrown off by a hypothetical question and would never have "condoned rape or violence against women." 

A couple of weeks later, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin of Woodville, took a cue from Trump in the final debate and said Clinton “has done some nasty things” and “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty.” 

"I was asked twelve times in the course of two minutes whether Hillary Clinton was a nasty woman," Babin said in a statement for this story. "I responded persistently that Hillary has done some nasty things and I stand by that. That was the point I made. My comments were related specifically to Hillary Clinton and to suggest otherwise is taking quotes out of context and dishonest." 

Tying all of the commentary together minutes after Miller’s now-infamous tweet Tuesday, a female GOP operative not authorized to speak on the record on political matters quipped: “To be fair, maybe a gentleman needs to be told when he's being nasty.”

For many of these women, the deafening silence from most of the party leaders from their state has been almost as disturbing as the handful of sexist remarks. While Gov. Greg Abbott rushed out criticism of Miller's tweet, most of the party’s leadership — which is now mostly men — kept quiet.

"They have not done a good enough job denouncing Donald Trump and Sid Miller, and it's just a shame,” said Steinhauser. 

A question emerging among these women is: Which came first? Did Donald Trump normalize this way of speaking, or is this representative of an escalation in tone over several years? 

Some wonder if Trump forever shattered unwritten rules on political comity. 

“I worry if we get a mainstream candidate, will the temperament be the same?” asked a female Texas GOP consultant who declined to speak on the record for fear of losing clients. “I hope not.”  

But most of the women noted that the number of GOP women running for office in Texas has been falling off for years, and the male officeholders currently drawing outrage have few professional female equals to challenge their worldviews. 

One of the women contacted for this story pointed to Democrat Wendy Davis’s 2014 unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign as the turning point, saying the rhetoric toward her was markedly rougher than what the late Ann Richards and Kay Bailey Hutchison encountered in their day. 

Whatever the root, they say it’s not helping their ideological cause. 

“They’re not good at what they do if they think that’s good politics,” said Sarah Flores, a Houston native who was deputy campaign manager on Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign. 

For Flores, the frustration goes back to 2012, when Democrats effectively accused the GOP of waging "a war on women." She described how in the 2014 cycle, Republican women went to bat across the country to defend their party, only to see the undermining of those efforts this year.  

Coleman, the former statewide official, agreed that beyond being tactically dubious, it was counterproductive to attack Clinton in this way.

"Guess what guys, and gals too, they are called 'adjectives' and there are a myriad of acceptable ones that you can use to describe the problems with Hillary's agenda without having to resort to intellectually-arrested vocabulary," said Coleman in an email. "Silly gutter talk is not the way to 'win friends and influence people,' two goals to which the Republican Party should aspire." 

Evangelical women are similarly distressed, questioning what happened to the “compassionate conservatism” brand that helped George W. Bush move Texas firmly toward the Republican party. 

But straying from the top of the ticket is not a universal worldview among Texas Republican women. Red State Women, an Austin-based Republican group, released a video Wednesday making the case that Clinton is a uniquely problematic candidate and the stakes surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court were too high to vote against Trump.

Some in the Miller camp are frustrated, saying that a number of GOP women privately offered him their moral support. His supporters further wondered if some of this commentary had less to do with what they view as a human error and more to do with Miller's strong endorsement of Trump — a candidate many of the women interviewed publicly denounced long before Miller's tweet. 

All the while, several women in the state's political class confessed to re-evaluating their future in the GOP. One of the women said the toxicity made her put aside lifelong ambitions to run for public office.  

That is the nightmare of Steinhauser, the State Republican Executive Committee member, fears.

"I've tried to get involved in the party and tried to broaden the tent and to get other young women involved, but it makes my job harder when you have folks like Sid Miller and Donald Trump using this type of language,” she said. 

None of the women interviewed said they are considering joining the Democratic party. Several suggested they would follow the lead of the McMullin campaign and explore building a new party.

Steinhauser suggested that with Miller, at least, women would have the final word. 

“We are political consultants by trade,” she said. “We’re conservatives, and as a strong conservative woman, I open the door to a strong conservative woman challenging Sid Miller.” 

Read more Tribune coverage here:

Disclosure: Jennifer Waisath Harris has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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