HOUSTON — An audible groan erupted in the lounge area of Houston’s Gulf Coast Distillers in late October when high-profile Trump campaign operative Mica Mosbacher invoked the idea of a Democratic presidency.
Mosbacher encouraged the audience of roughly 50 GOP women — a group that included a millionaire Texas congressional candidate, the owner of a gun store and a Gov. Greg Abbott political appointee — to turn their grumbling into action.
“It’s not the boy’s club anymore,” she said.
Texas Republicans need women on their side if they’re going to keep the state red in 2020, but recent polls suggest President Donald Trump’s support among women is plummeting. A secret recording of outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen laid bare the GOP’s anxieties about the president: “He’s killing us in urban-suburban districts,” Bonnen told a Republican activist in late June.
Trump’s campaign seems to take the risk seriously. At the October Women for Trump panel discussion, a group of female surrogates — mostly white, some living in D.C. — parachuted into a historically black neighborhood in the heart of Texas’ biggest city to sip drinks and implore Republican women: “We need your help.”
Mosbacher, whose resume includes stints working for GOP fixtures like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and the late John McCain, turned to one of the women next to her to bring the point home.
“What would you tell people who are on the fence about President Trump?” Mosbacher, a member of the Trump 2020 Advisory Board, asked Women for Trump member Karen Henry.
“It would be hard for me to be nice to ‘em,” Henry, a mother of four and Houston-area business owner, quipped. “But if you want somebody who’s going to stand up to the media, who does what he says he’s going to do … he’s the only person you can vote for.”
Onstage next to Henry was fellow member Melanie Luttrell. “Don’t you want your kids to grow up in the America you grew up in?” she asked the crowd. Many women nodded their heads solemnly in agreement.
The visit to Houston was one of many that Trump campaign surrogates have made in recent months as part of a broader national outreach to suburban women, a voting bloc that will be essential to Trump’s reelection campaign. But a majority of Texas women said in October they would definitely vote for someone besides Trump in the 2020 presidential election, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. And 46% of people living in the suburbs said the same thing, according to the poll, compared to 41% who said they would definitely vote for him.
“We need every one of you to replicate yourselves,” said Penny Nance, the CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, who also said she is an evangelical Christian.
“Texas has the largest group of new voters,” she continued. “So guess what? We need to get them signed up.”
But beyond the four walls of the Houston distillery, that might be easier said than done. Even Texas’ historically conservative suburbs now appear competitive: A Houston-area congressional seat flipped to Democrats in 2018, and both Harris and Fort Bend Counties are overwhelmingly blue. In the Dallas region, Republicans lost a second congressional seat last year, along with a slate of state House seats and a state Senate one.
For 2020, Democrats are targeting six congressional seats and have their sights set on nearly two dozen seats they hope to flip in the Texas House — most of which are in the suburbs. If the minority party can win nine state House seats next year, they’ll gain control of a chamber in the Texas Legislature for the first time in nearly two decades.
If Trump is going to help win back the seats Texas Republicans lost last year, the effort may hinge on suburban women, their neighbors and friends. But it’s in those suburban enclaves where some experts believe the gender gap is the widest.
“The numbers are pretty clear that the level of support among suburban women for the Republicans and for President Trump has dropped,” said Texas GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser.
“There’s the gender gap and we’re aware of it and we all see it,” he said, noting a summer NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found a huge drop in support for Trump among women. “It’s based on the personality and the behavior of the most prominent figure in the Republican Party.”
At the Women for Trump event, the president’s surrogates nonetheless shrugged off the notion that their candidate is lacking for support in the suburbs. When Mosbacher asked how women have succeeded under Trump’s economy, Henry told a story about her Salvadoran housekeeper. The woman, who has a green card, Henry said, had complained during the Obama presidency that Henry was “not paying as much.”
Henry’s answer: Blame the Democrat and his “raising the taxes.”
But Trump’s 2018 tax breaks gave Henry noticeably more disposable income — and as a result, her housekeeper “saw a little raise in her paycheck,” Henry said. (Research shows the tax cuts have primarily benefited the wealthy.)
Other panelists said Trump’s appointment of judges who oppose abortion rights to the Supreme Court was enough to sway their friends and acquaintances. They also touted his focus on fighting sex trafficking and a proposed $1 billion one-time investment to increase the supply of child care in underserved populations — all things Mosbacher said appealed to women.
“I’m a policy wonk, and I really, truly believe his policies are working,” said Jacquie Baly, an Abbott appointee to his University Research Initiative advisory board.
Baly, Nance and Mosbacher are just some of the many high-profile Republicans the Trump campaign has deployed to Texas ahead of next year’s election cycle. For a Women for Trump “Holiday Celebration” in Tyler this month, Trump’s senior campaign adviser Katrina Pierson, who hails from the Dallas suburbs, was the special guest. And when Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr. headlined a San Antonio rally earlier this year, his girlfriend and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle was at his side.
It’s a strategic change from Trump’s 2016 election, which relied primarily on Facebook and a select number of high-profile male campaign surrogates. Since then, the White House has increased the number of women in public-facing roles, and has relied upon a litany of GOP women onto his campaign to speak on his behalf, including Guilfoyle, Lara Trump, social media stars Diamond and Silk and Kellyanne Conway.
Texas Democrats say it’s evidence of Republican fears about the state turning blue. Democrats hope to weaponize Trump’s record — particularly the fallout from his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border — against him.
“Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase, ‘alternative facts’ and I think that the president and his team basically relies on alternative facts,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist. “While he’s vulnerable and has lost support among women, his supporters will disregard any evidence proving that.”
But the Trump campaign hopes to galvanize a different profile of a suburban woman, one who might have gone unnoticed by pundits and strategists: the silent voter who will turn out for the president in 2020.
Democratic and Republican strategists painted a profile of such a voter: She is a fan of Trump’s brash personality and likes that he behaves more like a businessman than a politician. She probably comes from a higher-income household and is college educated. She also might have a family and has seen her or her husband’s business thrive economically over the last few years.
This woman might not show up to events like the one organized in Houston, and she might live in an area where the president’s message is a tougher sell. But if the campaign can make sure she votes on Nov. 3, 2020, the hope is, they can help prove pollsters wrong.
“There’s a silent majority of people who don’t speak what they really believe and they’ll go to the polls and they’ll vote for Trump because of who he’s running against,” Henry said in an interview.
Democrats concede that it’s this brand of silent supporter that helped springboard Trump to the White House in 2016, something they’re trying to account for ahead of next year.
But what remains to be seen for GOP strategists is whether they can court new voters, a demographic coveted by both parties. Republicans are already trying to correct for this. Earlier this year, a super PAC named Engage Texas launched to register hundreds of thousands of new Texas voters here and convince them to help them keep the state red.
At the Houston event, after Mosbacher concluded the panel discussion and some of the room had emptied, Kayla Hensley, the regional director for the Republican Party of Texas, kicked off a PowerPoint presentation about how women could get out the vote.
Hensley’s message spoke directly to women like Rhonda Velders, who has lived in Nassau Bay for the last 30 years. Velders is the type of woman the campaign is hoping will thrill to its message: She’s a lifelong Republican, a mental health therapist who said she’s seen economic success under Trump’s presidency.
Velders was shaken when she saw her hometown vote blue in 2018 but believes things will turn around next year. “As women, we’re going to rise up, and be able to say, ‘I don’t have to be ashamed of being a woman.’ And frankly, I don’t have to be ashamed that I’m white because I feel like sometimes you’re shamed for being white.”
Trump loyalists hope the results of the 2018 midterms, in which Cruz eked out a win over Democrat Beto O’Rourke, were an anomaly and enough to motivate conservative women to turn out for the GOP next year.
“It’s not rocket science,” Velders said. “But if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose everything we know.”
Pollsters say there’s no magic number for how many women like Velders Republicans need to pursue in order to maintain their stronghold over the state. At the very least, they say, Trump needs to perform with women as well as he did in 2016.
“The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” Nance, the CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, said. “It’s now or never, ladies.”
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