I was worried that Monica Rey Haft was going to drive off the road in her Hyundai Sonata. She was rushing from her law office in Plano to Richardson to pick up her daughter for some pre-college shopping; we were also speaking via FaceTime about her decision—as a lifelong Republican and evangelical Christian—to switch her vote to Joe Biden for president this November. “I’m sorry every dang day,” she said of the vote she cast for Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, the more Haft spoke about Trump, the more she started looking and sounding like your garden-variety agitated Democrat.
Haft wore her sunglasses atop her flowing brown hair. Occasionally she took her nicely manicured hands off the wheel to gesticulate, but her wide-eyed, highly animated expression, thankfully, stayed directed at the road. The way we were hurtling across North Dallas—me in Haft’s cup holder, then on the dashboard—felt fitting for a discussion about the upcoming election toward which we are tumultuously hurtling right now.
Haft is a member of the cohort often referred to as “suburban moms”; she also complicates its stereotypes. She is an insurance defense attorney with an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke, the Seven Sisters liberal arts college in Massachusetts. She came by her GOP loyalty early: her mother is Colombian; her father is a Cuban immigrant who never forgave JFK for betraying Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs disaster. She adored Ronald Reagan when she was a high school student.
Haft is also “100 percent pro-life—from womb to tomb” and she had no trouble voting for John McCain and Sarah Palin. Nor did she have qualms about standing behind Mitt Romney when he ran against President Obama in 2012. Haft wasn’t fond of Trump when he won the GOP nomination in 2016—she’d hoped Romney would be the nominee again—but she had a son in the military who believed Trump would be the best leader for the troops, and she wanted to support her son. Haft was also no fan of Hillary Clinton: she didn’t trust her and was dismayed by her handling of the Benghazi attacks, in which two American military compounds were attacked by Islamic extremists. “I thought we needed somebody with less baggage,” Haft had told me in an email when I first reached out to her. “What a silly decision that turned out to be!”
That decision, silly or not, is one that some college-educated suburban Republican women have reconsidered. The president’s time in office, and, more recently, his approach to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, have had an effect on women voters, in Texas as elsewhere, and on their importance in the upcoming election. Nationally, many suburban Republican women flipped Democratic in the 2018 midterms, and polls continue to show Trump lagging behind Biden among that cohort. Votes from women like Haft could prove to be pivotal in the election in November, not just in the presidential race but also in down-ballot races across the state.
“The suburbs are key because everybody else is locked in,” says Richard Murray, a frequent pollster and a political science professor at the University of Houston. Texas’s cities are blue and our rural areas are red, but the suburbs are the political no-man’s-land.
According to the Texas Politics Project, women now make up about 55 percent of the Texas electorate. And some firmly Republican women in Texas are not looking so firmly Republican, a trend that began when many crossed over to vote for Clinton in 2016. That trend continued in 2018, when traditionally red districts like Houston’s Seventh District turned blue with the victory of moderate Democrat Lizzie Fletcher over tea party favorite John Culberson. “The gap has gotten narrower,” says Rice sociology professor and pollster Bob Stein—more women are voting Democratic. But in addition to increasing turnout among their base, Democrats who hope to flip some congressional seats and take control of the Texas House will still have to peel more voters from the GOP.
That’s where women like Haft come in. The clout that pollsters ascribe to suburban women relies on an assumption that they are more likely than their male counterparts to cross over and support Democrats because of the issues that matter most to them. In pre-COVID times, those issues included health care, education, and taxes; now their concerns are even more urgent. The question of whether to defund the police has become a hot-button issue, and COVID-19 has already had an outsized economic effect on women. The pandemic has pushed women, who statistically assume caregiver roles in greater numbers than men, to do even more heavy lifting, when the initial burden was heavy enough. They’ve been faced with difficult questions. Is it safe to send my child to school? And if I don’t send my kids back to school, how can I work and take care of the kids? When will I be able to see my aging parents?
Even before the pandemic, there were fault lines in the GOP’s base. “A couple things are intersecting,” explained Sarah Longwell, publisher of the conservative anti-Trump news site The Bulwark who also runs her own political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “Trump has accelerated trends that were happening more slowly. If Marco Rubio were the nominee, you wouldn’t see it happening at such an accelerated pace.”
Longwell, a “never Trumper,” also runs a website called Republican Voters Against Trump, a project of the group Defending Democracy Together, which features videos from Republican and conservative voters across Texas and beyond, such as Haft, who do not plan to vote for Trump in November. (Defending Democracy Together isn’t the only group to highlight such defections. Among others, there is the 43 Alumni for Biden super PAC, which insists, “Together, we can help restore decency, honor, dignity, and true leadership to the White House.”)
The Texas women who have made videos, most of whom identify as lifelong Republicans, offer explanations for their party flips that would not be out of place at a Democratic kaffeeklatsch. There is a young Black woman, Melanie, who says she was “mesmerized” by the Republicans—until she realized “they were racist.” There is Cindy from Houston, who sent a sympathetic box of cookies to Richard Nixon during his impeachment but who now says Trump is “magnitudes worse.” There’s military wife Erin, who complains that Trump did nothing about the Russian bounties paid to the Taliban for killing American troops, and Jennifer, who asserts that Republican judicial appointments or tax cuts cannot “justify what Trump has done to destroy the rule of law in our country.”
Then there’s Elizabeth Neumann, who says that Trump’s rhetoric made her job—as assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention for the Department of Homeland Security—harder. She goes on to telegraph her fury at Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic. “I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Neumann says, “You were hired to handle America’s worst day and you have absolutely failed.”
Early on, Longwell suggested, Trump’s hold on suburban women was weaker than it may have appeared. He won a plurality of white women in 2016, but Longwell’s research showed the majority of those women were voting against Hillary Clinton rather than for the Republican nominee. Additionally, Longwell pointed out, “people vote and think it’s their civic duty, but they don’t follow politics.” Voters knew Trump from his TV show, as a tough, competent executive. But since his election, swaths of the electorate have turned away. In the midterm elections, the GOP lost the House. “A big part of the driving force was women, even women who voted for him in 2016,” Longwell said. And that was before COVID-19 and the widespread demonstrations for racial justice.
Trump isn’t the only candidate whose fortunes could change as a result of suburban women putting values over party. In Texas, pollsters will be watching liberal Democrat Julie Oliver’s race in the Twenty-fifth Congressional District against the deeply conservative Roger Williams, and that of Fletcher, who now faces Republican Wesley Hunt. (One of Hunt’s women-focused commercials is called “Daddy Duty,” and shows him valiantly changing his daughter’s diapers.) Texas House Republican Sarah Davis hopes to maintain the seat Democratic women helped her win in 2012; but this time, Davis faces stiff opposition from Ann Johnson, whom she defeated in that race eight years back. Many of Johnson’s supporters believe Davis, who is the only pro-choice Republican in the Texas Legislature, has not been the abortion rights champion she promised to be, and that she has not sufficiently advocated for LGBT rights and gun control.
Because we live in a crisis-a-day world, things could change for the Democrats overnight (CBS News Battleground Tracker polls released Sunday showed Trump up by two points in Texas). Longwell pointed out that women who own small businesses, for instance, could become frustrated if the Democrats stress more lockdowns over an economic recovery.
“I support Trump; he’s not my moral compass but I support his policies,” one prominent Republican fundraiser told me, adding that she supports Trump’s stance on the economy and immigration.
The GOP has also rallied to recapture suburban women’s votes. Congressman Dan Crenshaw, the former Navy Seal with a national following, is in a close race against newcomer Democrat Sima Ladjevardian; not for nothing has Crenshaw put his wife Tara in a campaign commercial touting her husband’s patriotism. (“They could take away his eye, but they couldn’t take away his dedication to the United States.”)
And both Longwell and Bob Stein, the Rice professor, pointed out that Trump’s appeals to “suburban housewives” to protect their neighborhoods—opponent Joe Biden, Trump has said, will destroy them—are clear attempts to keep undecided Republican women in his neighborhood.
Haft, though, isn’t having any of it. At the end of our conversation, she paraphrased former Republican governor and energy secretary Rick Perry, saying she plans “to go have a margarita when that mofo is out of office.”