Pausing from a work meeting in an Eagan bookstore coffee shop last week, Hilary Autry said this presidential cycle has left her at a loss.
The 32-year-old, who works for a nonprofit that helps feed poor children, said she’s a dedicated Christian who usually votes Republican. But she’s been put off by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s words about women, and unconvinced he has what it takes to be a conservative leader.
“I’m struggling this year,” she said.
Ten miles away in Apple Valley, loading groceries into her car, Jean Deming, 51, told a similar story. When asked about her decision in the presidential race this year, the stay-at-home mom, also a Republican voter, sighed.
“I’m struggling more this year,” she said.
Trump’s unpopularity among suburban women represents a significant obstacle for his campaign, as college-educated women have emerged as a pivotal swing group this election.
Polls across the country show a widening gender gap, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton opening up a double-digit lead among female voters.
A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, conducted Oct. 20-22, found that 56 percent of women in the state support Clinton, up 4 percentage points from September. In the new poll, only 32 percent of women are backing Trump.
That divide is particularly notable in suburban communities, where many state and congressional races are likely to be tight and where women — including some who say they are more tuned into this election than any before it — are less likely to follow the party line up and down the ticket.
“I think the Trump factor is undeniable,” said state Sen. Melisa Franzen, a DFLer from Edina, an affluent suburb that had a strong Republican lean until recent election cycles.
“The environment of this election has been completely changed by Donald and that has had a huge effect on districts like mine, where a lot of the women are very engaged, professional women,” Franzen said. “They take his comments as an offense.”
It is not clear how many women who opt not to vote for Trump will cast their ballots for Clinton, for another candidate, or just avoid voting on the presidential race altogether.
Deming, who lives in Farmington, said she’s still weighing her options. She has never been a Trump fan. But she has been particularly put off by some of the issues that have come up over the last six weeks, a period that included the release of a video in which he bragged about groping women and reports of nearly a dozen women who say Trump sexually harassed them or touched them inappropriately.
Plus, Deming has been unhappy with some of Trump’s racially tinged comments; she has two adopted children from Central America. But she’s no fan of the Clinton family, either, and distrusts Hillary Clinton.
“It’s: What’s my conscience?” she said. “I’m a conservative Christian voter. I stand for life and a lot of these issues.”
Deming said she definitely won’t vote for Clinton, might vote for Trump, but is leaning toward a third-party candidate.
In Eagan, Autry said she’s also still making up her mind.
“I’m sensing a lot of greed, from both parties,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of confident experience.”
Autry said she’s leaning on her faith to believe that things will work out in the end, however it goes. And in the meantime, she’s paying more attention to the candidates in state and local races.
That’s something leaders from both major parties are hoping for, though they predict far different consequences for the increased attention to down-ballot races. Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said he sees the 2016 presidential campaign as a perfect storm for building his party’s base, particularly among women. With a woman at the top of the ticket, more women running in other races, and Trump making some women voters uneasy, he said it’s reminiscent of Republican Barry Goldwater’s failed campaign for president after the candidate said he opposed the Civil Rights Act and lost support from black voters.
“I feel like we’re at the same kind of seminal moment, a watershed moment, where Donald Trump’s candidacy, combined with the fact we have a woman candidate, a historical candidacy on the top of the ticket, that’s going to move a fair amount of women in the Democratic column for generations to come,” he said.
But former state legislator Pam Myhra, president of the Minnesota Federation of Republican Women, said women in her party are getting more involved because they care about conservative issues. She said her group has added three chapters, all in suburban communities, since the last presidential election, and that women there are particularly motivated because many races in the suburbs are tight.
Myhra said her group is focused on gaining ground on big topics like health care and job growth. The federation’s tax status prohibits its leaders from advocating for or against a particular candidate, but Myhra said the group does have a message for women struggling with whom to choose on Election Day.
“We are strongly encouraging people to look at the issues, rather than the personalities, and vote on the issues,” she said.
State Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said she’s finding women frustrated with both presidential candidates when she’s gone door-knocking for her own campaign. But she’s convinced that Republican-leaning women will still turn out to support other GOP candidates on the ballot, even if they make a different choice for president.
“I have talked to many women who are definitely voting for me, and I think they’re cross-ticket voters because the local-level politics matter,” she said.
While having lunch at the Eden Prairie Center mall, Maxine Steinberg, 75, of Edina, said she is fiscally conservative, though she usually votes DFL. She said she could have been inclined to vote for a Republican at the top of the ticket, had it been someone else. But she said she sees Trump as a “showman” who is getting increasingly unreasonable with his recent threats to sue the women who have accused him of improper conduct — and believes Clinton is a trailblazer who has worked hard and overcome sexism on her historic run for president.
She dismissed Republicans’ finger-pointing at Bill Clinton’s own marital transgressions as a reason voters shouldn’t support his wife.
“I figure if Hillary can live with him, what do I care?” Steinberg said.