One of the bigger challenges for Republican congressional candidates this year, is to win over women voters who don’t like President Trump.  And, the number of women who don’t like Trump, especially those who live in battleground suburban districts is ... huge.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just 39 percent of women give Trump a favorable approval rating, compared to 58 percent who disapprove of the job he’s doing.  And, among white, college-educated women (a.k.a. suburban women voters) the gap is staggering – just 26 percent approve to 71 percent disapprove.

Their distaste for the president is seeping into their 2018 voting intentions as well.  For example, back in 2014, white college women voters – according to merged NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys – preferred a Democratic Congress to a Republican one by just two points (46 to 44 percent).  This July, the margin ballooned to a whopping 25 point margin (58 to 33 percent).  

Even among white women overall, support for Republican candidates has slipped markedly since 2010 and 2014. Back then – when it was Barack Obama in the White House – Republican candidates won white women by 19 points and 14 points respectively. Today, they prefer a Republican candidate by just one point (45 percent to 44 percent). The one bright spot for the GOP was among white, non-college women who preferred a Republican candidate by 16 points (52-36 percent).  That’s an 8-point improvement from 2014 polling taken by NBC/Wall Street Journal.

The other worry among many Republican strategists is that GOP women voters simply don’t show up at all this fall. These women may not be tempted to vote for a Democrat for Congress, but their negative feelings about the president keep them home on Election Day. A Fox News poll taken earlier this month found a 14-point intensity gap between Republican men and women, with 53 percent of GOP men and just 39 percent of GOP women saying they are “extremely interested” in the upcoming election. The poll found no such gap among Democrats, with 54 percent of men and 53 percent of women saying they are “extremely interested” in the midterm elections.

However, GOP strategist Liesl Hickey says Republican incumbents, especially those in suburban districts, should not give up on women voters. Hickey, the former executive director of the NRCC knows a lot about running and winning in suburban districts. I first met Liesl in 2000, when she was working on Mark Kirk’s first campaign for the suburban Chicago’s 10th CD. Liesl helped him get re-elected in 2006; a particularly awful year for House GOP members. She now advises and produces advertising for GOP candidates in suburban districts across the country.

This June, she conducted dozens of one-on-one interviews with independent and Republican-leaning women voters in suburban battleground counties. What she found was that “they can dislike Trump, but still vote for a Republican member of Congress." These women, says Hickey, are “open and willing to hear an argument” from GOP candidates.

What they see in Washington is dysfunction, disagreement and division. What they want to see is "people working across the aisle,” and “having conversations” instead of shouting matches and scorched earth politics. The message to these voters, she says, is one that emphasizes “integrity, character and honesty and putting country first.”

So, how does a Republican candidate sell a message of unity, bi-partisanship, and honesty at a time when the leader of their party emphasizes division and polarization and traffics in dishonesty?

First, says Hickey, very few of these Republican-leaning and independent women believe that their dislike of Trump means that they can’t trust Republicans to be in charge in Washington. They want to see a conservative fiscal agenda put in place. But, they’d like the people who set the agenda, the congress members they send to Washington, to have character – and the backbone to stand up to the president when needed.

So, how can Republicans running in swing districts rebuke the president without 1) incurring his Twitter wrath; 2) turning off core GOP voters they need to turn out in November?

Do it, says Hickey, “not in a personal way, but around policy.” No one needs to be reminded that Trump likes smash-mouth politics and a “my way or the highway” governing style. What these voters do want to know is how YOU will conduct yourself. Have you worked with Democrats on issues important to the district? Do people see you as approachable and reasonable? How have you given back to your community? These traits in and of themselves provide a contrast to the president.

Forget about running ads that directly confront the president. Instead, Hickey advocates messaging on a policy position that runs counter to Trump’s position. For example, instead of running an ad that says you have voted against Trump’s immigration agenda, tell voters how YOU are working to help DACA recipients.

What’s also helping suburban GOP candidates with independent and Republican-leaning women, notes Hickey, is the fact that these women are worried that a Democratic-controlled Congress will be too far out of the mainstream and will “go too far.”

The July NBC/Wall Street Journal poll backs up that theory – to a point. When asked if they thought Democratic candidates were “generally in the mainstream of most Americans’ thinking, or are generally out of step with most Americans’ thinking?” just 33 percent picked mainstream while 56 percent picked “out of step.” Among women, just 38 percent thought Democratic candidates were in the mainstream, compared to 49 percent who think they are out of step. Almost a majority of white, college educated women (47 percent) thought Democratic candidates were out of the mainstream.

However, voters don’t think Republican candidates represent the mainstream either. In fact, Americans see both parties as out of step (56 percent for Democratic candidates and 57 percent for Republicans). Women found Republicans more out of the mainstream than Democrats – 58 percent to 49 percent.

Among white, college-educated women, just 27 percent see GOP candidates in the mainstream, compared to 61 percent who see them as out of touch.

Republicans fared better with white, non-college educated women, but not by a whole lot. Just 37 percent of white, non-college women thought Republicans were in the mainstream, compared to 28 percent who said the same of Democrats.

Ultimately, GOP House candidates have no control over the biggest factor in the election: the president and his behavior.  What they can control, however, is their messaging. And, that message, says a GOP strategist who knows suburban voters well, should focus on what they are doing to make things work better, instead of trying to justify (or ignore) the dysfunction.   

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