In Georgia, Republican women try to navigate Trump era

Just about every weekday after working hours are over, DeAnna Harris bolts from her real estate marketing gig to knock on doors for her other job: trying to flip a state House seat in Democratic territory.

And each time she canvasses, she is ready for the flurry of questions from residents in Cobb County neighborhoods wary of voting for a Republican in a district that Hillary Clinton easily carried two years ago.

“When people come at me with the whole Trump conversation, I have to bring them back,” she said. “It’s not about Trump. It’s about this district. I have to reel them back in, to get the conversation focused on state issues.”

Democrats are increasingly bullish that President Donald Trump's low approval numbers among independent voters and suburban women will prompt a "blue wave" at the polls this year and box out GOP candidates such as Harris.

For female Republican candidates who are seeking to appeal to those same voters in Georgia, Trump presents a constant challenge: Do they tie themselves to a president still popular among his base — which generally includes their core supporters, too — or seek separation from a man elected to the White House with the biggest gender gap ever recorded?

Some have fully embraced the president, even bringing on former staffers from his campaign. Others have kept him at arm’s length, focusing instead on meat-and-potatoes issues for the GOP such as the economy and deregulation.

But one thing is crystal clear nearly two years into Trump's presidency: With his iron grip over the GOP — roughly 85 percent of likely Republican voters in Georgia approved of the commander in chief's performance in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's latest statewide poll — denouncing the president in any clear way is not an option for any GOP candidate in Georgia, man or woman.

Record breaking

The women's marches that spilled across American streets after Trump's inauguration, coupled with the #MeToo movement, have helped prompt a record number of women to run for office this year.

That includes Georgia, where Democrats have put up a pair of women for the state's top two jobs, as well as female contenders for insurance commissioner, two Public Service Commission posts and four U.S. House seats. That energy has spilled down the ballot, where 121 women sought state legislative seats in Georgia – compared with 75 in 2016.

But that wave of female empowerment has been largely limited to the left. An analysis from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that female candidates this year are roughly twice as likely to be Democrats than Republicans. In Georgia, about three-quarters of the women running for Georgia's Legislature are Democrats.

Many Republican women dispute the narrative that most female voters lean to the left. But the political climate this year has undoubtedly created a tricky situation for the female GOP candidates who are running in Georgia and across the nation.

They are constantly asked to answer for the president on the campaign trail.

Not only that, but they are aligned with a party that eschews identity politics, which takes away a powerful tool their Democratic counterparts have used to their advantage this year, said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Maryland.

“They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Deckman said of female GOP candidates.

Instead, many leading GOP women in Georgia have deployed different strategies as they’ve made their appeals to voters this year.

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who is perhaps Georgia's best-known Republican woman, rarely discusses her status as the only female member of the state's congressional delegation, even as her allies have grumbled that she's not given enough credit for breaking a glass ceiling in Georgia politics when she became the state's first GOP congresswoman.

As she seeks another term representing Atlanta’s northern suburbs, Handel trumpets her legislative work on issues such as human trafficking and the opioid crisis, occasionally tying it to lessons learned from her own hardscrabble childhood.

“I was told by an individual in my very first statewide race to allow voters to see who I am and that I am real and authentic, and I’m taking that to heart,” Handel said in a recent interview.

The strategy is a powerful one, Republican strategist Julianne Thompson said. GOP voters are looking for candidates who focus on issues, and pairing that with an inspiring life story is a way that can win elections and help recruit more female candidates in the future, she said.

“If suburban women are going to decide the elections in Georgia and truly have an impact on the elections nationally, we need to make sure we have the kind of spokeswomen out there who can speak to those issues and those voters,” she said, citing Handel as an example.

A delicate dance

While Handel frequently invokes prominent Democrats such Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi to rally Republicans on the campaign trail, she mentions Trump far less.

She has endorsed the president, who narrowly carried the typically Republican 6th Congressional District in 2016, and she embraced major aspects of his agenda, including his economic policies and increased defense spending. But she’s also carefully created distance from him on issues such as trade and family separations on the southern border without criticizing him directly.

“I have worked hard every single day to do my absolute best for the people of the 6th District,” Handel said, “and doing that means that sometimes I agree with the president and other times I don’t.”

Tricia Pridemore has taken a different tack.

After she was tapped for an open Public Service Commission seat earlier this year by Gov. Nathan Deal, she was quickly reminded by her critics of past tweets that were critical of Trump. She soon trumpeted congratulatory calls from the president's aides — and hired a pair of veterans from his 2016 campaign to shore up her grass-roots network.

And her general-election mantra hasn’t changed: On the campaign trail, she notes that one of her first votes “was to give Georgians $77 back from the Trump tax cuts” in the form of a utility rate cut.

“When conservatives lead, we deliver results Americans want,” she said.

There is tremendous pressure for GOP candidates to stick with the president in Georgia.

“I do expect Republican senators and all (to support Trump), as long as what he’s asking them to do is sensible and is for the good of the country,” said Patricia Chandler, a retiree who lives about 40 miles southeast of Augusta. “We all do things that maybe somebody else doesn’t like. But it’s like a family.”

Others are itching for a change. Alexis House voted for Trump in 2016 but quickly tired of the controversies that followed. After all, she said, her support for Trump was more of a vote against Hillary Clinton.

“Hillary was a little much for me,” said House, a retiree who lives in Hampton. “It’s too early to say whether I’ll support him in 2020, but I’ve not been proud of Trump. And that’s a shame.”

She’s the type of voter Harris, the Cobb candidate, desperately needs to keep in the GOP fold.

Harris aims to knock on 100 doors each evening before heading home, grueling work in a district held by a Democratic incumbent who won his last competitive race — in 2012 — by nearly two-thirds of the vote.

She’s grown adept at navigating the delicate dance over Trump. When voters bring up his controversies, she tries to summon her support for a 2018 law that cut Georgia’s income tax. When voters accuse him of being a racist, she points to her own background as a black female Republican. And she’s constantly trying to take the bite out of partisan politics.

“I’m running in a Democratic district. But this is about who can best represent our community rather than political parties. Once people can understand that — and get away from the D’s and R’s — they hear me out.”

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