- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2016

GREENSBORO, N.C. — As the presidential race sank into R-rated territory, the wives of three sitting congressmen urged a dozen women sipping iced tea at Darryl’s Wood-Fired Grill last week to rise above the fray and get out the vote — for Donald Trump.

Citing issues such as border security and the future of the Supreme Court, they said the Republican nominee’s vision for the country far outweighed the torrent of bad press the mogul had been receiving for his words and purported actions against women.

“Place your trust in him. He deserves it,” said Lolita Zinke, the wife of Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, a Montana Republican and former Navy SEAL.

Leaked audio of Mr. Trump making lewd comments about women sent many Republicans scurrying last week, fearing the decade-old remarks from an “Access Hollywood” taping would dent their prospects among much-needed voters in the final weeks of the campaign.

Yet even as the Republican Party descended into civil war, these conservative women loaded onto a chartered bus and took off across North Carolina, a crucial swing state, urging voters to make peace with the mogul’s offensive remarks and rally to his side. They said Hillary Clinton’s liberal vision for America is an unacceptable alternative.

For these women, the calculus is straightforward: Mr. Trump may be a cad, but Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has done things they abhor, including failing to secure the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and promising to let more Syrian refugees into the U.S. amid questions about the vetting process.

“Donald Trump’s character is not actually what we’re voting on. We’re voting on his vision, his policy and his concerns,” said Debbie Meadows, the wife of Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican. “What we share are his concerns — for national security, for changing the direction of this nation. And that hasn’t changed.”

They also rejected the idea that Mrs. Clinton’s historic run as a female candidate should make them natural allies.

“It’s an insult to think I would vote for anyone based on the fact we share the same anatomy,” said LeeAnn Johnson, the wife of Rep. Bill Johnson, Ohio Republican.

The “Women for Trump” bus took off from Charlotte on Oct. 9 and wrapped up late Friday in the same city, where it served as a backdrop for one of Mr. Trump’s rallies. In between, it crisscrossed the state with a rotating crop of congressional wives from across the country — as some flew out, several more took their place — on a tour of family farms, restaurants and county Republican Party offices.

Tour organizer Nancy Schulze, the wife of former Rep. Dick Schulze of Pennsylvania, said no one dropped out because of the controversy swirling around Mr. Trump.

“This about the future of this country,” she said. “This is about what America we will end up living in for the next 40 to 50 years.”

Despite a few middle fingers and “drive-by F-bombs,” the women said, the response was overwhelmingly positive and they are confident they can swing North Carolina into the Republican column.

Polls show Mrs. Clinton beating Mr. Trump by double digits nationwide among female voters, and North Carolina is a critical state for both candidates — meaning female voters could play an outsized role in who takes the White House.

“There’s plenty of college-educated, suburban Republican women in N.C. and Trump has become an increasingly hard sell for them,” Steven Greene, a politics professor at North Carolina State University, said in an email. “It’s hard to see how Trump holds on to N.C. without doing well among this group of voters.”

At Darryl’s, Mrs. Schulze told women from the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club to redouble their efforts in the final weeks before the election, noting to audible gasps that Mrs. Clinton has far more campaign offices in the state than Mr. Trump does.

None of the congressional wives excused Mr. Trump’s comments from 2005, in which he boasted that his star power allows him to do what he wants with women — including grabbing their private parts.

The nominee has apologized for his remarks, though he dismissed their content as “locker room talk” in the second presidential debate. Since then, nine women have come forward to accuse Mr. Trump of groping them or making untoward sexual advances.

Some of the women on the bus doubted the veracity of those accusations and why they became public so close to the election. Yet protesters near one of Mr. Trump’s rallies Friday said it is impossible to believe that some women are sticking by the candidate.

“I’m shocked. I’m shocked at the acceptance of this low standard,” said Lisa Fullington, who held up a sign denouncing Mr. Trump as a “predator.” “Could you tell me, coherently, what his policies are?”

Several feet away, Jennifer McCammant held a sign depicting two arms reaching for a cat — a thinly veiled reference to part of Mr. Trump’s hot-mic boasts from 2005.

“It was a big trigger, is all I can say,” she said of Mr. Trump’s remarks. “It’s going to make me do stuff like this.”

The women on the Trump bus also saw it as a catalyst. They wanted to push back against a tide of negative press against the Republican candidate.

Mrs. Meadows said “a lot of people have said a lot of bad things, and if the mic had been on any one of us, when we thought we were talking privately, we could be embarrassed.”

Prior to rolling downtown Friday, the women highlighted their support for a key Republican issue — school choice — by touring the Gate City Charter Academy, a new school in east Greensboro serving 450 children from a district with a high minority population and poverty rate.

“Our Gate City families understand that without Republican initiatives, our school would not exist or have any funding,” said Jeff Hyde, vice president of the school’s board of directors.

Inside the lobby, the women asked school officials about their funding streams and how far they were able to supplement or stray from Common Core — a set of education standards that conservatives reject as government overreach. Further inside, they were impressed by the neat rows of children wearing earphones and working quietly in the computer lab.

In the outside world, parents have been shielding their children’s ears from the ribald talk that has colored the campaign, and the “Women for Trump” were on the receiving end of obscenities in Asheville, Mrs. Schulze said.

The local sheriff happened to be nearby, and he asked the women if he should say something to the male heckler. Instead, they laughed it off.

“I realized, that’s it — men sometimes say stupid things,” Mrs. Schulze said. “So do women. OK? Let’s get over it.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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