WASHINGTON (AP) — If 2016 has been the Year of Trump in politics, it may also end up being a new Year of the Woman, if Democrats get their way. And that won't be a coincidence.
Democrats aim to have female Senate candidates on the ballot in nine states in November, a near-record, and these contenders will likely be sharing the ticket with the first major-party female presidential nominee in history in Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump, whose commanding win in Indiana cemented his improbable status as the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, is viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of women, according to Gallup. So as discomfited Republican Senate candidates released statements trying to change the topic or have it both ways Wednesday, Democrats made plans to link their largely male opponents to Trump, seeking to win back control of the Senate in November by electing Democratic women from coast to coast.
"I'll tell you as a professional woman, too many women have had to fight Donald Trump's type of sexism and offensive rhetoric their entire lives," said Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, who is challenging Republican Sen. John McCain and released an early ad in February tying the incumbent to Trump.
"After 33 years in Washington John McCain has changed, and Donald Trump proves that he has changed," Kirkpatrick said in an interview, comments reflecting the Democratic approach in key Senate races across the country. "Because even after Trump's sexist and offensive rhetoric, McCain has been really clear that he would still support Trump."
Republicans have grappled for months with the impact a Trump candidacy would have on their efforts to protect their slim 54-46 seat Senate majority. Last fall, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Ward Baker, wrote a memo later leaked to The Washington Post that warned candidates to take lessons from Trump's rise but steer clear of his incendiary stances.
"Houston, we have a problem," Baker wrote. "Donald Trump has said some wacky things about women. ... We do not want to re-engage the 'war on women' fight, so isolate Trump on this issue by offering a quick condemnation of it."
Indeed for all of the controversies he's stoked and every voter group he's offended while appealing to enough white Republican men to emerge as the GOP nominee, women could be Trump's biggest problem this fall, and the biggest problem for Senate Republicans. Women vote in higher numbers than men — in 2012, 10 million more women cast ballots than men — and vote more heavily Democratic. This year, strategists in both parties expect those trends to be magnified given Trump's unpopularity with women, Clinton's historic candidacy (though she herself faces high negative ratings), and the large number of women running for Senate.
On Wednesday, EMILY's List, an influential political committee dedicated to electing women, targeted five GOP Senate candidates who face female opponents in November, demanding to know whether they would play the "woman's card."
"Are we about to see him devalue his female opponent and launch character attacks on her in the same vein as Donald Trump?" asked the releases aimed at McCain, Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, and Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock said this election presents the chance to send a historic number of women to the Senate, even more than in 1992's "Year of the Woman" when female voters outraged over the all-male Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill at hearings on Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination swept women into office around the country.
"Donald Trump is going to have to really expand the electorate to overcome how badly he is seen by women," Schriock said. "If you're starting your presidential campaign with 70 percent basically women who don't like you, you're going to have to find a lot of brand-new voters, a lot. And the truth is there's not enough."
Already, a GOP-run anti-Trump political action committee aired an ad featuring women reading some of Trump's negative comments about women, including "bimbo," ''dog," and "fat pig." In Arkansas, Democratic longshot Connor Eldridge released a digital ad this week showing Trump himself saying some of those things and worse, and Republican Sen. John Boozman pledging to support the GOP nominee.
Democrats say much more of the same is yet to come.
"We have repeatedly called on Pat Toomey to distance himself from those and other comments of Donald Trump's and he's refused," said Katie McGinty, Democrats' Senate nominee in Pennsylvania. "What we have is a Trump-Toomey ticket."
Toomey's spokesman Ted Kwong said that Toomey has made clear he disagrees with Trump in several areas, and accused McGinty of being "a total rubber stamp for Hillary Clinton and the Washington party bosses." McCain's spokeswoman, Lorna Romero, offered a similar retort to Kirkpatrick, saying that her "only accomplishment in office is being a rubber stamp for this president."
Yet Toomey, McCain and the other Republicans running for re-election find themselves in a no-win situation. All have pledged to support the eventual nominee — to do otherwise would risk alienating Trump's many enthusiastic supporters. But most want to create some distance from Trump if they can, forcing a delicate straddle that might get only trickier through the fall.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a vulnerable incumbent, summed up the dilemma by declaring through a spokeswoman Wednesday that she would support Trump for president — just not endorse him.