Outside the brand-new Bread and Butter Bakery in downtown Covington, Ga., window signs flash the company’s flirty tagline: “Nice buns.” Next door, a lingerie shop displays mannequins with lacy underclothing.
Yet here in this iconic Southern town square, where a sometimes titillating culture intertwines with deeply held Christian faith, Cathy Knight is not about to give Republican nominee Donald Trump a free pass for his attitude toward women.
“Trump needs to be careful going forward when talking about people's weight and looks, because those kinds of words do have a horrible impact on many women,” says Ms. Knight, an assistant for her husband’s construction firm.
She sees such controversies as mostly political theater, however, overshadowing the real issues at hand. “Benghazi is really what’s driving my vote for Trump,” she says, referring to the 2012 attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three others. “I think about if it was my husband or son killed there.”
And though an improving economy has improved prospects for her husband’s business, his illness resulted in what she calls an awful experience with Obamacare, the landmark government health care program that “Trump has promised to fix.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump’s political tuning fork has resonated almost perfectly for Knight and many other women here, giving voice to their fears, concerns, and anger – and promising tough action to make America safe, prosperous, and respected on the global stage.
The magnitude of their concern about such issues helps to explain how some conservative women, though deeply conflicted, are still supporting Trump even as his campaign remains embroiled by the candidate’s boasts on a 2005 video of groping women in ways that constitute sexual assault, as well as a growing list of women who say they experienced Trump’s self-described advances.
On Thursday, Trump called the women's allegations, published by The New York Times and other publications, “pure fiction and outright lies.”
Hillary Clinton is now leading Trump by an average of 15 percentage points among women, while he is only outperforming her by 5 points among men, according to an analysis this week by FiveThirtyEight.
While part of that is due to Independents coalescing around Mrs. Clinton, there's also another factor at play: An increasing number of conservative women, including prominent evangelicals, have publicly disavowed Trump this week.
Concern about abortion a key issue
Among Republican women serving as governors or members of Congress, 42 percent have said they do not support their party’s nominee, compared to 17 percent of their male counterparts, FiveThirtyEight also reported this week – though a few have returned to the fold after Trump’s strong performance in Sunday’s debate.
The popular Christian author Jen Hatmaker called Trump’s comments a “travesty” and “national disgrace” on Instagram. Julie Roys, host of the national talk show “Up For Debate” on the evangelical Moody Radio Network, wrote, “I honestly don’t know what makes me more sick. Listening to Trump brag about groping women or listening to my fellow evangelicals defend him,” in an Op-Ed for The Christian Post.
Kay Warren, the wife of Rick Warren, the best-selling evangelical author and pastor of Saddleback Church in California, tweeted: “As a victim of sexual assault, I tell you firsthand of devastation wreaked on women & girls by predatory men & boys who think women ‘like it.’ ”
Yet even for a long-time Republican supporter like Kathy Vander Woude, also a survivor of sexual assault, the decision over whether to vote for Trump has been agonizing.
She would never want to doubt anyone who has the strength to tell their story, says Ms. Vander Woude, now a human resources coordinator for an international insurance software firm in University Park, Ill. And the candidate’s comments have been “incredibly vulgar and disgusting and horrific,” she says.
But as a former executive assistant for a Chicago lobbyist, and having worked for years among political insiders in Illinois politics, helping to organize fundraisers for GOP candidates – “a dirty, dirty business,” she says – the timing of the allegations is bothering her, and she remains undecided.
“And I’m pro-life, and that’s really huge with me,” Vander Woude says. “Tax issues are huge, too. Being a divorced mom, and really at the lower end of the pay scale of what I should be, it is a struggle between the taxes I have to pay and the economy being not where it should be, and trying to support the kids and myself and maintain a household.”
Chelsen Vicari, evangelical programs director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C., is not so convinced. Though she voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, she's not sure whether Trump will uphold key values that are important to her.
“Typically, I would probably lean toward supporting the GOP candidate,” she says. "But overall, Donald Trump does not come across as reliable on policy issues like abortion and pro-life issues, so in this situation things are different."
“How can I believe that he will nominate Supreme Court justices with pro-life ethics? I have nothing, no evidence that can guarantee that,” she continues, adding that his “offensive and demeaning” comments against minorities have been equally concerning.
“And, yes, his integrity, especially in light of these abusive remarks toward women – I cannot put my support behind him as a candidate,” she says.
But Ms. Vicari has agonized over the decision at times, noting that she has many friends and colleagues “who disagree with me on everything when it comes to Trump."
Among them is her mentor Janice Shaw Crouse, a former speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush who recently wrote a piece titled, “Why a Well Read Woman with an Earned Doctorate Will Vote for Trump.” Ms. Crouse, in an email to the Monitor, confirms that she still stands by the GOP nominee.
The election could very well hinge on the number of Republican women who decide to support the GOP nominee, despite the current controversies – voters like Crouse, or Donna Smith back in Covington.
Ms. Smith says she isn’t sure exactly what Trump has done or not done. What is clear to her is that Trump “has lived a long life and is, after all, a man,” suggesting that Trump’s crass streak and womanizing ways are endemic among American males.
“But, yeah, I do have moralistic problems with some of the things he has said and done, and if my husband ever …,” she says, her admonitions left to the imagination. “But if he stands up for his principles in the White House, well, I’ll be forever appreciative.”