These women leaders formerly begged their fellow conservatives to back anyone—anyone! Seriously, anyone!—but the the thrice-married, morally ambiguous reality TV star.
Those times are gone.
On June 21, many of those women—along with hundreds of other evangelical leaders and activists—will gather in Manhattan to meet with Trump, pepper him with questions, and consider whether or not to push the millions of activists they influence to go all-in for this year’s presidential campaign.
But the progress he’s had thus far with this cohort suggests he’ll have little trouble getting them onboard the Trump train.
No one’s about-face has been more dramatic than that of Andrea Lafferty, who heads the socially conservative Traditional Values Coalition. On Feb. 12, she and 14 other female pro-life leaders signed a letter urging South Carolina Republicans to back anybody but Trump.
“America will only be a great nation when we have leaders of strong character who will defend both unborn children and the dignity of women,” the letter read. “We cannot trust Donald Trump to do either.”
Lafferty told The Daily Beast that she doesn’t feel that way anymore—not even a little bit.
“I’m just really excited about it,” she said.
“He will be president,” she added. “Donald Trump will win.”
Listening to Trump and speaking with his supporters changed her heart, she said. And she isn’t alone.
A number of leading pro-life women say they’re increasingly open to backing Trump—not just because they feel he’s the only serious alternative to Hillary Clinton (sorry, David French), but because they’re actually taking a shine to him on his own merits. And Trump has been quietly courting evangelical Christians, taking an approach that’s the opposite of typical candidates. Instead of wooing the right during the primaries and then turning center-ward in the general, Trump is doing more than ever to appeal to social conservatives and evangelical Christians.
“It’s great,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List. “It’s why it makes it easier for me to be open-minded, because we are dealing with somebody who is not a typical candidate—he just does things very differently.”
During the Republican primaries, Trump consistently flummoxed pro-life activists—blowing them off, praising their top foes, and blithely missing memo after memo. And he waltzed to the nomination without kissing their rings, suggesting that winning their clout ain’t what it used to be.
But since becoming the presumptive nominee, the candidate has made an odd pivot, making staff decisions designed to win their loyalty and explicitly courting their approval with a pro-life-friendly Supreme Court short list. Ben Carson has helped, activists say, since he already had so much affection from evangelicals. And Trump’s decision to hire John Mashburn, a well-connected former aide to pro-life stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms, sent shockwaves through the pro-life community—if Trump was good enough for Mashburn, they said, he’s good enough for anyone.
But Trump is still Trump. When he promised he would only nominate “pro-life judges,” Dannenfelser’s ears perked up. She said she’s never heard another Republican politician use that phrase.
“I think they think that it doesn’t sound sophisticated, that it’s too frank for them,” Dannenfelser said, of Republicans who are more euphemistic about their judicial philosophies. “What has been jarring on the one hand is refreshing on the other, which is that he calls it like he sees it.”
This view is new, as Dannenfelser joined Lafferty and others to rip Trump back in February.
“He has impugned the dignity of women, most notably Megyn Kelly, he mocked and bullied Carly Fiorina, and has through the years made disparaging public comments to and about many women,” they wrote. “Further, Mr. Trump has profited from the exploitation of women in his Atlantic City casino hotel which boasted of the first strip club casino in the country.”
Trump has yet to repent of those sins. But that hasn’t kept his old detractors from making peace with him.
“I stand behind everything I said in that letter, and I’m hoping to see improvement in that area, and I’d love to help him with that,” said Penny Nance, who heads Concerned Women for America and signed the South Carolina letter. “But I was around back in the day when the Clinton machine was demeaning and destroying the reputations of women who dared to come forward and tell their stories of being abused by Bill Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton has her own problems when it comes to demeaning women,” she added.
Nance is one of the co-hosts of the Trump/Evangelical summit, along with a host of other evangelical luminaries. An event invitation that anti-Trump radio host Erick Erickson posted on his site The Resurgent also lists James Dobson, Ken Cuccinelli, Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Lila Rose, Bob Vander Plaats, and Richard Viguerie as organizers of the summit. Most of those people endorsed Ted Cruz, so the event will give Trump a chance to court his last serious primary opponent’s top allies.
The crowd will have plenty of skeptics.
Kristan Hawkins, who leads Students for Life and plans to attend the June 21 meeting, said she isn’t convinced yet that Trump’s newfound pro-life conviction is for real.
“We certainly welcome converts to our cause, that’s what we do every day at Students for Life,” said Hawkins, whose group has 950 chapters. “The question is, is this a genuine belief?”
Though her group doesn’t endorse candidates, it can encourage its members to “vote pro-life”—without naming names. Of course, Hawkins said she’s unlikely to do that unless she’s persuaded one of the candidates is, well, actually pro-life. So she’ll have plenty of questions ready for the mogul.
Others have already made their peace. Laura Beth Kirsop, a pro-life activist from South Carolina who also signed the Susan B. Anthony list letter, said she’s ready for Trump—even though she thinks he’s kind of a bad person.
“Right now, if I had to vote tomorrow, I would vote Donald Trump because of where he at least says he stands on the pro-life issue,” she said. “But, again, I cannot defend his character.”