Republicans have made attacks on high-profile Democratic women a key part of their strategy for holding onto congressional majorities.
The GOP aims to cast rank-and-file Democrats as puppets of House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden pushes back at Democrats on taxes Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Of partisan fights and follies, or why Democrats should follow Manchin, not Sanders MORE (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (Mass.) and other Democratic boogeymen, calculating that suburban and rural voters won’t want to replace their Republican lawmakers with Democrats beholden to the party’s power brokers.
But while those tactics fire up President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE’s conservative base, it risks turning off the suburban and college-educated women seen as crucial voting blocs in the fall — especially since so many of the GOP targets happen to be women.
“Republicans need to be careful and smart about the language they use when they’re critical of female opponents,” Doug Heye, a GOP strategist, said in a telephone interview with The Hill.
Trump has repeatedly ripped “low IQ” Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past Cawthorn to introduce resolution condemning political violence after warning of 'bloodshed' if elections are 'rigged' MORE (D-Calif.) and “total flunky” Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.).
He’s also insulted Warren over her claims of Native American heritage, repeatedly referring to her as “Pocahontas.”
And Republicans across the country have run ads highlighting the dangers of putting Pelosi and Waters in power. If Democrats win the House majority this fall, Pelosi could become the Speaker again, while Waters would lead the Financial Services Committee.
To be sure, some Republican ads have also gone after male progressive figures, such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin suggests pausing talks on .5 trillion package until 2022: report Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Sanders calls deadly Afghan drone strike 'unacceptable' MORE (I-Vt.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.).
But the starring roles of prominent Democratic women in the GOP attacks is notable, and could lead to both rewards and risks.
“Trump and the GOP are really playing with fire,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “This is going to jeopardize the support Republicans have with these suburban, college-educated female voters, some of whom voted for Trump in 2016.”
Congressional Republicans have made Pelosi the star of a number of attack ads around the country, tying her to Republican targets and branding her as a liberal coastal elitist who would steer the party far left if Democrats win back the House.
“Dishonest Danny would vote with Pelosi to raise taxes and give amnesty to millions of illegals,” said one attack ad against Democrat Danny O’Connor, who lost in an Ohio special election against Republican Troy Balderson last week, but is facing off against him again in November.
“His campaign is bankrolled by Pelosi,” said another attack ad aimed at Andy Kim, who is running for a House seat in New Jersey. “Andy Kim is a Pelosi liberal. He is not one of us.”
“Nancy Pelosi and Anthony Brindisi’s liberal agenda is too extreme for upstate New York,” said another ad promoting Rep. Claudia Tenney's (R) reelection race.
Using Pelosi as a liberal punching bag is hardly a new playbook for Republicans. But the GOP is also ramping up attacks on Warren, Waters and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Republican National Committee this week compared Ocasio-Cortez, who quickly became a liberal star after her primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), to a “mini-Maduro,” referring to the authoritarian Venezuelan leader.
In what is being dubbed as the “year of the woman,” where a record number of female candidates are running for office, some strategists have warned Republicans to be careful not to cross a line when they criticize women.
“Those kind of things can backfire very quickly, and it’s important to be smart and precise to avoid that,” Heye said. “You can still be critical of them, it just needs to be thought-through.”
While the White House has argued that Trump is an “equal opportunist” when it comes to lobbing insults, some of his most sustained and biting attacks have been directed at women in the Democratic party.
And in recent months, Waters — a veteran lawmaker and woman of color who has been one of the loudest champions of Trump’s impeachment — has become public enemy No. 1 in the president’s eyes.
Trump has called Waters “crazy,” “unhinged” and “extraordinarily low-IQ” — lines of attack that some critics have called sexist and racially charged.
He has also tried to paint both her and Pelosi, two California liberals, as the face of the Democratic Party.
“Crazy Maxine Waters, said by some to be one of the most corrupt people in politics, is rapidly becoming, together with Nancy Pelosi, the FACE of the Democrat Party,” Trump tweeted in July. “Her ranting and raving, even referring to herself as a wounded animal, will make people flee the Democrats!”
Trump’s attacks on prominent women aren’t limited to Democrats. Earlier this week, he lashed out at his former White House aide Omarosa Manigault NewmanOmarosa Manigault NewmanJudge denies Omarosa Manigault Newman request to depose Trump, John Kelly in lawsuit Tanden seeks to defuse GOP tensions over tweets Juan Williams: The GOP's problem with women of color MORE following the release of her tell-all memoir “Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White House,” calling the “Apprentice” alumna a "crazed, crying lowlife” and a “dog.”
Trump repeatedly came under fire for his treatment of women during the 2016 campaign, particularly after the release of his hot-mic “Access Hollywood” tape, yet he still was elected to the White House — and over the first female major party presidential nominee.
But some strategists say the political environment is much different this time around.
Not only has the “Me Too” movement changed the national dialogue when it comes to women speaking out, but the Senate will soon start hearings to confirm conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where Democrats have warned that abortion and other women’s rights will be on the chopping block.
“If you put all these pieces together, you’re looking at a situation that’s going to cause a lot of trouble for Republicans in competitive House seats,” Bannon said.
The attacks on women could also give fuel to the Democratic argument that their party is more friendly to women, both from a policy and political standpoint.
“When you start comparing women candidates to dictators, and the president goes out and calls former staffers dogs, that does not help the Republican side of things. It only energizes Democrats,” Tara Setmayer, a former GOP communications director on Capitol Hill, told CNN on Friday.
While Republicans have recruited a record-breaking number of women to run for office, they are still lagging behind Democratic women, who far outnumber their Republican counterparts on Capitol Hill. The GOP is also poised to lose 25 percent of their female members next year due to retirements or members seeking higher office.
And if Democrats win the House in November, 35 women are poised to lead committees and subcommittees in the next Congress — a historically high figure that would put female lawmakers in the driver's seat for some of the most pressing issues facing Congress and the country. That could further galvanize female voters in the midterm elections.
“Look at how well women are doing in Democratic primaries,” Bannon said. “Something is going on there. Women are activated.”