- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

If Hillary Clinton has anything to say about it — and she likely will — equal pay for women will be front and center in the general election as Democrats try to widen the gender gap that has frustrated Republican presidential candidates for decades.

Of all the Republican hopefuls, front-runner Donald Trump should be the least vulnerable on equal pay — he doesn’t have a record of opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act or other legislative remedies. He has voiced support for equal pay. He has claimed that more of his business’ top executives are women than men, with many making more than their male counterparts.

Yet Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, can use the pay issue to tap into the popular narrative that Mr. Trump is sexist and mistreats women, analysts say.

“It’s an economic extension of the many problems that Trump will have with women voters,” said Democratic campaign strategist Craig Varoga, who worked on President Clinton’s 1996 re-election team.

He called equal pay a legitimate issue that he would expect Mrs. Clinton to raise to underscore questions about Mr. Trump’s attitude toward women in general.

“He clearly has problems treating women respectfully, and it is something that we should talk about and it will be interesting to see the way he handles it,” said Mr. Varoga.

Mr. Trump’s standing with women took another blow Tuesday when his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with simple battery against a female reporter this month at a Florida press conference.

The misdemeanor charge stems from a March 8 incident at a press conference at a Trump golf course in Jupiter. Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields said Mr. Lewandoski grabbed her by the arm during a scrum and threw her toward the ground.

“He will enter a plea of not guilty and looks forward to his day in court. He is completely confident that he will be exonerated,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement.

Mr. Trump has received high unfavorable ratings among women. A recent Fox News national poll showed 67 percent of women had negative views of Mr. Trump compared with 30 percent who had favorable views.

For rival Ted Cruz, 54 percent of women had negative views and 33 percent had positive views.

Mrs. Clinton did not do that much better, with negative ratings among 51 percent of female voters and positive views from 46 percent.

Mr. Trump has used his record hiring, promoting and paying high wages to women to deflect sexism charges, which stem mostly from derogatory remarks aimed at his female foes, such as calling comic Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” and disparaging the face of Carly Fiorina, a former rival for the Republican nomination.

“Women are just going to have to see what I’ve done. I’ve hired tremendous numbers of women,” Mr. Trump said in an interview Monday with Charlie Sykes on WTMJ-AM radio in Wisconsin. “Women are in highest executive positions. I pay women in many cases more than I pay men, which is more than most people can say.”

The real estate tycoon also credited himself with being a leader in breaking the “glass ceiling” for women in the construction industry.

Mr. Trump said many of his nasty remarks about women were in the context of his role as an entertainer, schtick he did in interviews with such hosts as shock jock Howard Stern.

But he also said some of the women deserved it.

“I’m not a fan of Rosie O’Donnell. She isn’t a fan of mine. You go back and forth. I don’t think there should be a double standard if someone is a woman,” he said on the talk radio show. “But I can tell you this, Charlie, I have been better to women than any of these candidates.”

Mr. Trump’s “woman problem” has been a chief argument from Republican leaders who are trying to block the front-runner from clinching the nomination.

But Jennifer L. Lawless, director emerita of the Women & Politics Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs, said she wouldn’t expect Mr. Trump to do better with female voters than Mr. Cruz, who has become the Republican Party’s last anti-establishment alternative to Mr. Trump.

“My guess is that the gender gap will look pretty much the same regardless of whether the Republican nominee is Trump or Cruz,” said Ms. Lawless. “They are both going to lose female voters by a sizable margin. We can make guesses about who is going to do worse, but I think there is going to be a pretty substantial gender gap regardless of whether Trump or Cruz is the nominee.”

She noted that the gender gap has been a problem for Republican presidential candidates dating back to the 1980 election, with women reliably breaking in favor of Democratic candidates and men for Republicans.

Women have turned out at higher rates than men in every election since 1996, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, Ms. Lawless said, Mr. Trump’s sexist and derogatory remarks about women have not helped his cause.

Trump is bringing this upon himself,” she said. “You go out there and you say things that are overtly sexist, what do you expect? There is going to be backlash, and there is going to be all this attention regarding whether he actually respects women and whether he will have a problem with that.”

Mr. Trump again hit a nerve with women when he tweeted an unflattering photograph of Mr. Cruz’s wife, Heidi. He said it was in retaliation to a provocative photograph of his supermodel wife, Melania, used by an anti-Trump super PAC in an attack ad in Utah.

On the stump, Mrs. Clinton presents herself as the women’s candidate.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that women earn 79 percent of what men make, and Mrs. Clinton regularly vows to fight for legislation to address the income gap. Her rallying cry is always an applause line at campaign events.

Despite debate about reasons for the pay gap — such as men choosing higher-paying career paths and women working fewer hours and years on average — the mention of the issue and the 79 percent figure are enough to give many women pause.

Stances taken by Mr. Cruz and fellow presidential hopeful John Kasich are not likely to reassure female voters that Republicans are on their side.

Mr. Cruz has a record opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would punish employers that retaliate against workers who share wage information and make it easier to sue for wage discrimination.

Democrats have introduced the legislation regularly since 1997 but have not succeeded in passing it through both chambers of Congress.

Mr. Cruz has said wage discrimination has been the law for decades and that the Paycheck Fairness Act would be a “trial lawyers’ bonanza.”

Mr. Kasich has been criticized for the high wage gap in his state, where U.S. Census Bureau data show women earn 78 cents to every dollar that men make. In Mr. Kasich’s governor’s office, female workers earn nearly $9.82 an hour less than men, according to an Associated Press analysis in 2014.

Mr. Kasich has said that paid family leave, another Democratic priority, is one of the reasons women don’t make as much money as men over their career spans.

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