Max Whittaker / The New York Times
Saturday, March 26, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Ted Cruz may have urged Donald J. Trump to leave his wife, Heidi, “the hell alone,” but there is one group that is quietly hoping Trump’s attacks on his rival’s spouse and other women will continue indefinitely: Democrats.
As Hillary Clinton turns her attention to a general election campaign, Trump’s nasty skirmish with Cruz, including his warning to “spill the beans” about his wife, without offering specifics, and his re-posting of a message that mocked her looks, have played into a crucial Democratic strategy to defeat Trump in November: to portray him as an unabashed sexist.
Clinton’s allies hope to sway suburban and independent women, who will play an outsized role in deciding the fall election, to support her candidacy by pushing this theme. These Democrats say the matchup would be historic: one pitting the first female nominee of a major political party against a rival who has repeatedly dismissed and disparaged women and their looks.
“I want Donald Trump to talk every single day for the rest of this election,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “He just needs to keep spewing what he has been spewing.”
Although Clinton will present herself as a protector of women, the political strategy is more about math than morality.
Trump has shown a particular weakness among female voters, who favored Clinton 55 to 35 percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, twice the gender gap of the 2012 presidential election, when President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney. And 31 percent of Republican women said they would be upset if Trump were the party’s nominee, according to the most recent CNN/ORC poll.
“Suburban women have been a critical swing group in the past, and there’s a lot about Donald Trump that is offensive to them,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who served as a chief strategist to Clinton in 2008.
Outside groups that support Clinton’s candidacy have begun to compile comments Trump has made about women into a decades-long montage of misogyny to be used in the fall. David Brock, the founder of Correct the Record, a super PAC supporting Clinton, said recently that of all Trump’s vulnerabilities, women may end up his Achilles’ heel.
“He’s had a lot of success degrading and belittling his male rivals, but I don’t think the attacks on Megyn Kelly or Carly Fiorina worked,” Brock said, referring to the Fox News anchor and former Republican presidential candidate who both found themselves in Trump’s cross hairs. “They’ve all backfired,” he added.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-abortion-rights female candidates and is supporting Clinton’s bid, said the group planned to use Trump’s comments to bolster both Clinton and down-ballot Democrats. “He’s going to drag down the rest of the Republican ticket with him,” Schriock said. “They’ll have a hard time ever getting women voters back.”
Republican strategists woefully agreed with that assessment, saying that should Trump become the nominee, he would grievously harm the party’s chance of winning the White House and other contests because of his unpopularity among female voters.
“It’s going to be a major factor” in November, said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who works for an anti-Trump super PAC, Our Principles PAC. “This guy comes across as a brash bully, and that is not very well received.”
Before the nominating contests in Ohio and Utah, Our Principles released a scathing one-minute ad that showed women repeating some of Trump’s descriptions of women, including “bimbo,” “dog” and “fat pig.” “This is how Donald Trump talks about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters,” the ad says.
Betty Montgomery, a former Republican attorney general of Ohio, said that if Trump was on the November ballot, he would lose Ohio, a crucial battleground state central to Trump’s claims that he can win in November.
“I think women as a whole find his language, his temperament, his volatility — frankly, his bullying — reminiscent of their kids in the schoolyard,” she said. “That will play very poorly in the general election for Donald Trump.”
Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, said that he “has excelled with women in each primary election to date” and that “he will continue to share his message, which resonates not just with women, but with everyone who wants to make America great again.”
The latest dust-up came after a super PAC opposing Trump’s candidacy released a picture of Trump’s wife, Melania, a former model, posing provocatively in GQ magazine. The ad, which was aimed at Utah’s Mormon population and had no ties to the Cruz campaign, read: “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.”
“Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” Trump posted on Twitter in response to the ad. He later posted to his 7.2 million followers an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz next to a glamour shot of his own wife with the caption, “The images are worth a thousand words.”
Trump did not elaborate on what he had in mind concerning Heidi Cruz, a former executive who worked in the George W. Bush administration and at Goldman Sachs.
Heidi Cruz has recently spoken about a difficult period in her life and marriage in 2005, when she suffered from what Ted Cruz described as “a period of depression.”
Campaigning on Friday in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz broached the subject unprompted, reminding voters that Trump had recently “taken to attacking Heidi.” “Loser!” a supporter shouted.
Hicks said Cruz should have “immediately disavowed” the attack on Melania Trump, who “was an extremely successful model” and “deserves respect for a tremendous career.” (Cruz did denounce the ad Wednesday, calling it “completely inappropriate.”)
The fracas was only the most recent episode in which Donald Trump’s words about women have incited outrage.
Trump has called Clinton “shrill” and used a vulgar variation of a Yiddish term to describe her 2008 loss to Sen. Barack Obama. He criticized Fiorina’s face and said listening to the former tech executive gave him a “massive headache.” And he has had a running battle with Fox News’ Kelly, implying that she had been agitated during the first Republican debate because she was menstruating.
Kathy Potts, a Trump supporter in Iowa who is a former chairwoman of the Linn County Republican Party, called Trump a bully and said she was offended by Trump’s insults of women. But with a son in the Army about to be sent to Iraq, Potts stands behind Trump because she believes he will be strong on national security. “He’s the one I’d pick to best protect Jason,” she said.
In surveys and focus groups, Republican women say their top issue is national security and safety, which should help Trump. But strategists say developments may force many women to rethink their priorities.