Christie’s jab at Jill Biden spotlights GOP problems with women

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Chris Christie’s jab at first lady Jill Biden during Wednesday night’s debate has sparked bipartisan condemnation and spotlighted the GOP’s messaging problem with women.

Christie, the former Republican New Jersey governor, was bashing teachers unions when he made a snide side comment, saying they are not advocating for children and that President Biden is “sleeping with a member.”

“They have an advocate inside the White House every day for the worst of their teachers, not for their students to be the best they can be,” Christie said.

The first lady is part of the National Education Association and has been a classroom teacher for more than 30 years.

The remark drew criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans, who called it distasteful and unsurprising from the party that’s still dominated by white men and struggling to shake its poor perception of advocating for women.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has sustained frequent gender attacks from the right, was among the loudest voices in opposition to what she saw as overt sexism, calling his comments “disgusting” and “misogynistic.”

Such one-offs may not be the downfall of the GOP’s standing with half the voting population. But the dismissive comments don’t help Republicans in assuaging female voters’ concerns about the party’s stance and courtship of the constituency, or that they are ready to prioritize women’s concerns while in office.

The GOP tries to play catch up with women each election cycle, attempting to woo the voting bloc away from Democrats who say Republicans are out of touch with their interests. While many Republicans admit they need to go better, recent polling shows a long way to go.

Young women, in particular, are still gravitating toward the Democratic Party, creating a hurdle for Republicans desperate to expand beyond their traditional base of white and non-college-educated men.

The midterms showed that Republicans’ pitfalls with women may be even harder to crack heading into 2024 as the gap between parties widens. Exit polling conducted by CNN last November shows the vast majority of female voters — 72 percent ages 18 to 29 — voted for Democratic House candidates, whereas only 26 percent voted for their GOP rivals.

A made-for-TV innuendo about the first lady doesn’t inspire confidence that GOP primary aspirants take women in positions in power seriously.

“As a former presidential campaign speechwriter and spokesperson, I know his intention was to drive home the point about teachers unions having the president’s ear and how nothing can change that,” said Rina Shah, a Republican strategist who’s been outspoken against former President Trump. “He wanted to deliver a zinger but fumbled it.

“I can almost guarantee he got carried away and did not intend to take the commentary that far. When he realized he didn’t land it, he kept going in an effort to explain his point but wound up at the point where he was offensive, almost directly suggesting women use intimate relationships to get professional outcomes they desire.”

Christie, who’s polling in single digits, has sought to distinguish himself against Trump’s campaign style that’s rife with derogatory comments about his rivals. With only one female opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in the race this cycle, much of that effort was concentrated during the last presidential election, where Trump and aligned Republicans made Vice President Harris the favorite target of their ire before she became Biden’s number two. They have since continued that line, seeking to downgrade the first Black female vice president into the White House.

While Christie’s known for his brash demeanor as New Jersey’s former top state executive, some saw his remarks as signaling a problem that runs deeper than one on-stage zinger during an otherwise dull debate. Critics said it was an insult to women whose voices are driving the policy debate and whose votes they need to expand their coalition.

“This is completely unsurprising. Even anti-Trump candidates within the GOP disrespect women,” said Charlotte Clymer, a prominent writer and Democratic political strategist.

Those who know Jill Biden say that while the comment from Christie was uninspired, it could foreshadow a strategy that lays into the president’s closest confidants, including his wife and son Hunter Biden.

In Jill Biden’s case, Democrats believe Republicans could use her to attack Biden’s policy decisions around unions, education and to expand the roster of personal slights at his family.

“Dr. Jill Biden has dedicated herself to community colleges and ensuring middle-class and impoverished students have access to a quality higher education. Why should she be insulted for that?” Clymer said.

While traditionally taboo in election cycles, familial insults from Republicans are nothing new for the Biden White House. Aides and those familiar with the president and first lady believe they shrugged it off this time and instead focused on the two parties’ differing policies on display during the debate.

“I think it was fair game for Christie because the president says it all the time. Christie simply reached back to some of Joe Biden’s greatest hits, and that’s one of them,” said Michael LaRosa, Jill Biden’s former press secretary.

But LaRosa and other Democratic observers said slights such as Christie’s could also contribute to the coarsening of public discussion around critical issues.

“Given their track record of smearing the president’s family including his son and his brother, it wouldn’t surprise me if they get desperate enough to draw her in an attempt to weaponize unions and teachers for politics or accuse her of some teacher influence-peddling scheme,” added LaRosa, who’s now a partner at the lobbying firm Ballard Partners.

Republicans have made it clear that they’d like the fall general election to be fought over culture wars — and education and labor play into that strategy. Women comprise a big part of the teaching sector and many belong to unions across the country, fighting for fairer wages to support themselves and their families.

And even in the nation’s highest public office, there’s precedent for female union involvement — from former first lady Laura Bush, a literacy activist, dating back to former first lady Grace Coolidge, who was a teacher.

“It’s particularly striking when there have been other examples of women… who have been First Ladies and been in unions,” said Katherine Sibley, director of the American Studies Program at St. Joseph’s University.

Sibley shrugged off Christie’s comments as part of the primary zeitgeist, where a handful of lesser-known Republicans want to outshine Trump for the nomination.

“I think he’s probably tried to appeal to this cultural … kind of ‘shocking’ truth thing that’s been so popular now.”

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