Up the road from GOP debate, Republican women wonder if one of their own can beat Trump

As seven GOP candidates faced off on a debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday night, a couple of dozen Republican women gathered about 10 miles up the road to assess whether any of the contenders had a chance of beating former President Trump.

The members of the Simi Valley & Moorpark Republican Women Federation, mostly white women over 50, munched chicken tenders and sipped beers beneath the twinkling string lights at the Simi Hills Golf Course bar, alternately cheering and jeering as their favorite and least favorite candidates spoke up.

The 2024 election will test whether Republicans can hold on to female voters. In presidential races, women tend to support the Democratic nominee, but that gap has narrowed in recent elections. Trump won 44% of female voters in 2020, up from 39% in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Republicans also gained among women in 2022 relative to the previous midterm elections, mostly because more Republican women turned out to vote, Pew found.

Barbra Williamson, 80, a 52-year resident of Simi Valley, has her eye on former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only woman on the GOP debate stage. Williamson, who served 20 years as a Simi Valley City Council member, said she is looking for more women to enter politics — especially younger ones, to replace elderly politicians such as Biden, Trump, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

“She just brings something to the table, you know? She’s bright,” Williamson said of Haley. “She says what she thinks, and I feel comfortable around her. Is that gonna change? I don’t know. I like Trump; I think he did a lot for our country. I don’t know if he’s gonna bring a bunch of baggage.”

Insurance broker Julie Abfelbaum agreed: “I like Trump, but I think he’s got too much baggage; I don’t think he’s gonna make it. Too many people hate him for no reason — Trump derangement syndrome.”

Sporting a bright red blazer with lipstick and fingernail polish to match, federation President Jenniffer Jones, 49, excitedly welcomed every newcomer to the Birdie Bar patio. Her club has hosted debate watch parties for years, she said, but the fact that the candidates were so close by added to the excitement.

“Reagan loved Simi Valley and we love his policies. That’s the one thing that really reverberates with a lot of members in our club — is the polite politics that he had. And that’s not around anymore,” Jones said.

Before the debate began, club leaders passed out small favors of plastic bags full of jelly beans — Reagan’s favorite candy. Every time a candidate said the word “I,” attendees were instructed to down a jelly bean. The bags emptied quickly.

Jones said she’s hoping for a politician who can get people to work cohesively. Is there a candidate running who seems to be pulling people together? Jones grimaced. All the women in her club work together, she said brightly.

Women behind a table greet two women in red blazers

Jenniffer Jones, right, president of the Simi Valley & Moorpark Republican Women Federation, greets attendees to the debate watch party at Simi Hills Golf Course.

(Faith E. Pinho / Los Angeles Times)

Jones, a full-time mother and volunteer, is also hoping Haley makes it past the primaries — not just for her, but for her 17-year-old daughter, who will vote for the first time in next year’s general election.

“She’s excited to vote, and she really wants a female president. That’s what her excitement is about,” Jones said, then paused. Tears ran down her cheeks. “She’s right. We need to have a female president. I think it’s time.”

But even as some of the club expressed enthusiasm for Haley, it was clear why Trump, who skipped the debate to deliver a speech in Michigan, is leading polls for the GOP nomination by an overwhelming margin. Trump supporters were scattered across the Birdie Bar patio. One woman showed up wearing American flag arm warmers, a star-spangled cowboy hat, a T-shirt declaring “I stand with Trump” and leggings saying “Make America Great Again.”

The loudest response from the relatively tepid patio crowd came when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed Trump directly.

“You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage,” Christie said to the camera.

Laughter rippled across the patio, followed by boos.

“You’re jealous!” called out Apfelbaum, who wore sparkling silver strands in her long brunette hair. “Jealousy killed the cat.”

Apfelbaum clapped heartily for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, her preferred candidate. She ticked off what she considered his accomplishments — not implementing strict pandemic restrictions, banning critical race theory and serving in the military.

“I would like [to] make California like Florida. That’s my motto,” she said.

“We’re not going to be like California and have massive numbers of people on government programs without work requirements. We believe you work and you got to do that,” DeSantis said during the debate, eliciting a round of applause at the Birdie Bar.

“Yeah, good!” one woman said to the TV.

Many of the patio patrons shook their heads and laughed whenever the candidates on the television screen devolved into arguments and crosstalk.

“[It’s] like the housewives, you can’t even hear what they’re saying!” one woman exclaimed.

At one point, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) turned to Haley and lambasted her for increasing the state’s gas tax while governor of South Carolina. The Birdie Bar crowd laughed when Haley grinned, saying, “Bring it, Tim.”

“Get it, Haley!” Jones cheered.

Asked about the likely prospect that Haley, who is polling in single digits, won’t survive the primaries, Jones flashed a disappointed face.

“Politics is a male-dominated profession,” she said. “And when you’re a female running for president, it’s hard to get those numbers because we’re conditioned to think that a man should be running this country. … We are constantly fighting for our rights, and it’s got to stop because we have a lot to bring to the table. We have a lot that we can do. And I know it’s time.”

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