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Washington's GOP divide: He’s for Trump and she’s for Nikki Haley

caption: Mary Kay Rohrbach is backing Republican Nikki Haley for president in 2024. Her husband of 44 years, Eric Rohrbach, supports GOP rival Donald Trump.
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Mary Kay Rohrbach is backing Republican Nikki Haley for president in 2024. Her husband of 44 years, Eric Rohrbach, supports GOP rival Donald Trump.
David Hyde / KUOW

Republicans recently gathered at a Kirkland middle school where a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of Donald Trump gave double thumbs-up. But not all voters here gave a thumbs up to Trump.

With the March primary on the horizon, Republicans across Washington state are debating who should represent the GOP in the race for president — the current frontrunner aiming for a comeback, or the potential first woman president? The answers offered in Kirkland — and details behind them — may not be what many voters expect.

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Mary Kay Rohrbach and her husband Eric have been married for 44 years. Like most couples, they don’t agree on everything, including the choice between former President Trump and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

“That’s an understatement,” said Mary Kay, who made the case to her husband that Haley is the more “electable” general election candidate. “Nikki Haley’s the one best suited to beat Biden in the general election in November. She is somebody that independents and moderates could really get behind."

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Eric, who supported Florida Governor Ron DeSantis until he dropped out of the race in January, now backs Trump and said it’s time for the party to unite behind its frontrunner.

Opinion polls show Trump with such a colossal lead that most pundits believe Haley has a very slim chance of winning. Polling also shows Haley trailing Trump among Republican women.

But Mary Kay, who said her father took her doorbelling for Richard Nixon back when she was just 8 years old, is resolute about backing Haley in 2024.

“I think she's conservative. I've always considered myself a conservative,” Mary Kay said.

Election officials will mail out ballots for Washington’s presidential primary for both major political parties on Friday, Feb. 23. Voters will have until March 12 to turn in their choice for a presidential nominee.

In a state that voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent presidential elections, the Rohrbachs attended the Kirkland gathering in part to help pick some of the delegates who will move on to this year's Republican state convention in Spokane. To gain support, aspiring delegates in Kirkland indicated their preferences for president.

The first woman president?

One reason Mary Kay Rohrbach thinks Haley is more electable is that she’d be the first woman president, but she doesn’t think that “first” helps Haley with women in the Republican presidential primary.

“I don't think it's an issue with Republican women — the box checking," she said. "But I do know a lot of liberal women, like in my book club, and when I say ‘Nikki Haley,’ they say, ‘Oh, I'd love to see the first woman president.’”

“I think there's a large group of people in the country who would vote that way for that one reason. I'm not one of them,” she added.

Other Republican women at the event in Kirkland also mostly shrugged at the idea of Haley becoming the first woman president, even as they recognized that it would be an advantage in the general election.

"I don't think anyone should vote for her because she's a woman or a woman of color,” said Haley supporter Amanda Gibbon, nodding to the candidate’s Indian heritage. “But I personally find that a bonus. I think that would be hilarious if the Republicans elected the first woman.”

Paul Hess, the vice chair of Haley's campaign in Washington state, said most of the GOP women he's heard from are backing Trump.

"If the women in the Republican Party would stand up and say, ‘We want Nikki,’ they would dominate. But they don't see the historical opportunity. Whereas the Democrats are totally into that,” Hess said.

What Republicans want on the ballot, and what they don't

There’s research to support Hess’ sense of frustration, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Republican women see the world differently from Democrats, separated by an increasingly vast cultural and ideological divide, she told KUOW.

“Within the Republican Party, there is an active shunning of the idea of identity politics," Walsh said. "It's not that they're saying that they don't want to elect people of color, and they don't want to elect women, but they want to let the process work itself out based on merit."

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Still, there are gray areas within that GOP worldview. Walsh pointed out that there is some fairly recent research that shows Republican women in Congress tend to want more women as colleagues, much like their Democratic counterparts.

“Should there be more Republican women in Congress? They said yes. And they feel that they bring something different to the table, because they are women,” Walsh said.

caption: A cardboard Donald Trump gives a double thumbs-up next to a table display of MAGA flyers at Kamiakin Middle School in Kirkland.
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A cardboard Donald Trump gives a double thumbs-up next to a table display of MAGA flyers at Kamiakin Middle School in Kirkland.
David Hyde

The Haley campaign and her supporters have been working to attract more support from women, but time is running out to sway undecided voters.

The day after the ballots are mailed out in Washington state, there will be a closely watched primary in South Carolina, Haley’s home state, on Saturday Feb. 24. Haley recently said she will stay in the race until at least “Super Tuesday” on March 5, when 15 states and the territory of American Samoa vote, and around a third of all delegates are allocated.

Washington voters get their say seven days later in their presidential primary on March 12.

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