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A group of women at a "Women For Trump MAGA" campaign stop July 27, 2020, in Pueblo listen to speakers including John Pence, nephew of the vice president, and Lauren Boebert, the Republican nominee for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cathy Lees, a stay-at-home mom in Highlands Ranch, is picking candidates this year based on her values, and that includes how they treat people. She’s been put off for four years by President Donald Trump’s language and demeanor.

“I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I would never want her to put up with someone speaking to her like he speaks to women,” she said. “Nor would I want my 16-year-old son speaking to anyone the way he speaks to people.” 

In Grand Junction, Rose Pugliese is voting with her two children in mind, too. But two of her biggest concerns are the economy and law and order. 

“Grand Junction hasn’t had quite the protests or the riots, but we are still watching it as moms and we want to make sure that it doesn’t come here,” said Pugliese, a Republican Mesa County commissioner who lives on the outskirts of Grand Junction. “We want to be prepared if it does.” 

The two suburban women are a target demographic for candidates from the top of the ticket down to the local contests, and the way candidates try to sway them is often through concern for their kids. That’s nothing new. But while their top worries in past years were school shootings, gun laws and foreign terrorism, in the 2020 election candidates are trying to woo the women by talking about COVID-19 and public safety in the wake of sometimes violent protests. 

One campaign flyer mailed to women from the Colorado Republican Party features a picture of a woman with scrunched eyebrows and a worried expression and it says former Vice President Joe Biden will cut funding to police, though Biden has said repeatedly that he would not defund the police if he is elected. “The Democrats have moved way too far to the left and that worries me,” the mailer says. “We can’t risk our children’s future with Joe Biden.” 

The Colorado Democratic Party, meanwhile, called out U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner with a mailer on abortion rights. “Cory Gardner supports criminalizing abortion and putting doctors in jail for up to five years,” it says, referring to a failed Senate vote. “Four years of medical school. Five years in jail.” The mailer refers to 2018, when Gardner voted in favor of opening debate on a proposal to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The suburban-women vote — also known as the middle-class, white-women vote — is a target because it’s traditionally a persuadable group that can swing between party affiliations. And this election cycle, the suburbs are more racially diverse than they were four years ago. 

Moms Demand Action activists rally for stricter gun control policies at the Colorado Capitol on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton barely won the suburban-women vote, according to Pew Research Center. And research shows that the portion of women identifying with the Democratic Party has increased significantly since Trump’s election.

In general, more women vote than men. In the last presidential election, 63% of eligible women voted, compared with 59% of men, according to Pew.  

Trump made it clear during a rally in Pennsylvania last week just how much he needs their support. “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?” he said in front of a cheering crowd. “We saved suburbia.”

So far the message is not resonating in Colorado. Two polls in recent months showed a substantial gap in the women’s vote for president, with Biden receiving 58% support and Trump at 36% or less. 

The gap is even more pronounced among suburban women — upwards of 36% more support for Biden than Trump, according to a survey conducted last week by Keating Research, a Democratic firm that is one of the state’s leading pollsters.

And Rick Ridder, a veteran Colorado pollster, said a survey he released Sunday showed Biden with a major advantage in Colorado — one built on the women’s vote. For women under age 50, he said, Biden gets 69% support and Trump 25%. “That’s a stunning number,” Ridder said. “This is one of the most amazing polls I’ve ever done. These people have made up their minds.”

Soccer moms, to security moms to “suburban women”

In the 1990s, the target was so-called soccer moms — the suburban women hauling their kids and gear bags to practice, many of whom were persuaded to vote for former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Security moms were the post-9/11 mothers concerned mainly about terrorism as they went to the polls and favored former Republican President George W. Bush.

More recently, in 2016, “Walmart moms” were defined as those with kids at home who shopped at Walmart at least once a month. Now “rage moms” are the ones so fed up with racial injustice and Trump that they’ve joined the street protests. And then there are “Zoom moms,” the women bearing the brunt of the pandemic as they manage online work meetings alongside their children’s cyberlearning. 

The buzz term this election cycle, though, is the more general: “suburban women.” It’s inclusive of women without children, and moms who aren’t soccer moms or, as former Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin used to call them, hockey moms. 

They’re all pretty much the same demographic.

“It’s a coded way to say middle- and upper-class white women,” said Sara Chatfield, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. “The way Trump has used this term has been very racialized: ‘You don’t want minorities moving into your neighborhood and ruining them’ seems to be his underlying message.” 

Research has shown that moms — more than women who are not moms — are more concerned about law and order, and more supportive of police, said Chatfield, who teaches a course on women and politics.

And while moms in the past several years have been concerned about gun laws and protecting kids from school shootings, 2020 has pushed other problems to the forefront. “They are more worried about whether their kids can go to school at all,” Chatfield said. 

A Colorado Republican Party mailer depicts a woman worried about the radical left and defunding the police.

This is why Democrats are focusing much of their messaging on the pandemic and how they will get kids back in school, and why Republican candidates are amplifying the violence in the streets, including some of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. 

Abortion rights are on the line this year, too, as Colorado votes on a proposal to ban abortion after 22 weeks of gestation, without exception for a lethal fetal diagnosis or the health of the mother, and as the U.S. Senate decides whether to confirm a new U.S. Supreme Court Justice to replace abortion rights advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But contrary to assumptions, Chatfield said, the abortion divide in the United States is not based on a gender gap — it’s primarily a Democrat-Republican line.

Outgoing state Rep. Lori Saine, who is knocking doors in Weld County as she competes for a spot on the county commission, said the potential for violent protests is “the No. 1 concern I’ve heard at the door lately.”

Saine, a Republican, said she keeps hearing from “women who are pretty afraid the riots are coming up here to their neighborhood.” They are looking at local and national news footage and feeling anxious. Many are talking about getting trained to carry a gun, she said.

“Law and order” debate is overshadowing the gun violence debate 

Pugliese, who has two kids ages 9 and 6, said the Mesa County women working to re-elect Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and elect 3rd Congressional District candidate Lauren Boebert are concerned about the riots and protests. 

“Obviously, law and order,” she said. “They want to make sure their kids are safe when they drop them off at school.” 

Her Western Slope community has a big “back-the-blue” effort to support law enforcement, and that matters to moms who see firefighters and police officers coming into schools to talk about safety, she said. As for the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a concern, but Pugliese doesn’t blame Trump. 

“This pandemic was unprecedented and nobody was prepared for it,” she said. “People may not agree with how the president handled it. There are people who don’t agree on how the governor handled it.” 

The issues she hears women talk about most often, she said, are the economy and transportation because they drive their children to various activities across town. “They want to make sure they can take care of their family,” she said.

A Colorado Democratic Party mailer goes after U.S. Cory Gardner’s record on abortion. The mailer referred to a 2018 vote by the senator to advance a debate on a federal proposal to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Mary Dambman, president of the Republican Women of Broomfield, said COVID-19 is the latest fear tactic in politics. The mother and grandmother, and lifelong Republican, has been around long enough to see how candidates have used fear of war, terrorism, the county’s direction and now the pandemic to sway voters, she said. 

“I think I share with everyone, no matter what her age, the economy is No. 1,” Dambman said. “You are concerned about the needs of the family. As you grow older, you think of your retirement. You hope that the cost of living doesn’t go crazy.” 

“COVID is the fearmonger at the moment,” she added. “It will pass when we get a vaccine.”

But Lees, the Highlands Ranch mom, said she’s annoyed that conservative candidates, as she views it, are trying to use the protests around racial reckoning to evoke fear in women. “I’m not scared of violence in the streets,” she said. “I’m not scared of it coming to the suburbs.

“They are not here to take away my stuff,” continued Lees, who has taken her children to some of the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver and Highlands Ranch. “They are protesting because they don’t have the same options that we do.”

And whether or not candidates are talking about it, Lees is still concerned about gun violence. “We haven’t been in school so there haven’t been any school shootings,” she said, noting that Americans typically talk gun politics in the wake of a mass shooting. 

Darien Wilson, also a Highlands Ranch mom, first became involved in politics five years ago by working to replace Douglas County School Board members who enacted a now-repealed school voucher program. Then she signed up to help elect Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow in 2018. And this year, she put her own name on the ballot, for county commissioner. 

Wilson calls 2016 “a dark time” — the year her dog died, a family member was struggling with mental health issues, and Trump was elected. “I literally woke up every day after the election for months just nauseated to realize how many people are OK with sexual assault and how my daughters are not safe,” she said, refering to the then-candidate’s comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape. 

As a candidate for commissioner, she tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter. In return, Wilson said, she’s been called a Marxist and a communist by supporters of her opponent, incumbent Republican Commissioner Lora Thomas. “The fear of this rioting is all about racism,” Wilson said. Scaring voters about riot violence works only if they are “primed for it,” she said.

Wilson’s campaign wasn’t getting that much traction until the current commissioners moved to withdraw from Tri-County Health Department after the department ordered a COVID-19 mask mandate. “My campaign just blew up,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for two weeks.”

Her campaign has focused on the pandemic and science, which is a “huge divide right now,” she said. “Imagine if a terrorist had killed 60 people in Douglas County since March?” referring to the 63 coronavirus deaths in the county.

Thomas said her constituents aren’t concerned about whether Douglas County breaks up with Tri-County Health Department — they want to talk about how to keep the historically conservative county safe, she said. 

“I have had many people ask me if they are safe here” and whether the protests will move to the suburbs, she said. Thomas, a former county coroner now fighting her first competitive race against a Democrat, said voters care most about “quality of life,” including public safety and open spaces. 

Barbara Musso shows off an “America First” face mask at a “Women For Trump MAGA” campaign stop July 27, 2020, in Pueblo. Speakers at the gathering included John Pence, nephew of the vice-president, and Lauren Boebert, the Republican nominee for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I’ve been knocking on doors since 2004 and what I’ve found through all of my years knocking on doors and talking to voters, is that there is no one-size-fits-all for a suburban woman voter,” she said. “They’re conservative, they’re liberal … They love Douglas County the way it is. And they want to keep it that way.” 

Karen Middleton, president of the abortion rights organization Cobalt, has been making phone calls to women in the suburbs to ask if they will vote against Proposition 115, the abortion ban measure. 

One woman cut her off and said, “I’m not at all into politics,” before hanging up. Middleton felt like the woman meant “politics is a yucky thing that other people are involved in,” and it reminded her of the times she’s knocked on doors for various campaigns — including her own for state representative in 2008  — and women would take her flyers and promise to ask their husbands. 

This year, though, Middleton has been encouraged not just by the numbers of women fired up about politics, but by their enthusiasm. 

“This time,” she said, “I’m seeing people come out of the woodwork.”

Staff writer John Frank and Sun contributor Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...