At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC, an elderly woman named Helen is teaching me about good taste. She has outfitted her pink dress with a gold chain, an American flag pin, and a large yellow flower-shaped medallion. "I like the razzmatazz!" Helen says. "Accessories matter."
Helen has traveled to CPAC in National Harbor, MD, from Boston, with her younger sister Maggie. She may wear a simple turquoise dress, but Maggie shares Helen's views on taste. The conservative grandmas have voted Republican for their entire lives. They've even attended CPAC for decades. ("Our mother loved CPAC," Helen says.) Like many of the other social conservative women who attend CPAC, they find Trump distasteful.
Helen and Maggie knew their immigrant grandmothers, who came from Germany and Poland. They claim their Polish grandma worked as a bootlegger. "The Kennedys had nothing on grandma," Maggie says. Their grandmother's illegal business made a fortune for her family, and Maggie and Helen find Trump's immigration views racist. The sister's dislike for Trump has transformed into hate, though, because Donald Trump has publicly supported Planned Parenthood.
Although Trump has vowed to defund the non-profit as long as it provides abortions, he also praised Planned Parenthood during a recent GOP debate. "I'm totally against abortion having to do with Planned Parenthood," he said. "But millions and millions of women—cervical cancer, breast cancer—are helped by Planned Parenthood." And, at a press conference last week, Trump discussed the "thousands" of women who wrote letters to him describing how Planned Parenthood had helped them. If Trump wins the nomination, socially conservative women, like Helen and Maggie, have vowed to forego voting in the general presidential election.
"Babies are so innocent," Helen says. "They didn't have a choice to be conceived."
"What if my mom didn't want Helen or Maggie?" Maggie asks.
"[Trump] believes in [Planned Parenthood]—I don't," Helen says. "[Trump's] sister believes in partial birth abortion—I don't."
Although the non-profit has been thoroughly vilified by the anti-abortion movement, Trump has stood his ground on Planned Parenthood. "I'm going to be good for women's health issues. It's very important to me—very important to me," Trump said at the same press conference. "I'm a conservative, but I'm a common-sense conservative."
The other kind of conservatives have rallied around Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "There are a few areas I don't agree with [Trump]," says a 20-year-old blonde conservative named Amelia. "I don't think he's respectful of women." Michelle, a 19-year-old Republican who is also blonde, agrees with Amelia. "He probably doesn't have a [full understanding] of Planned Parenthood," she says. "You could say it helps women, but it's still an abortion center… I feel like Trump supporters are small."
At CPAC, Trump's base appears small. On Saturday, Marco Rubio sits beneath a sign that says "OUR TIME IS NOW" on CPAC's main stage. "I never thought the front runner [of the Republican presidential primary] would be someone who doesn't support Israel and [supports] Planned Parenthood," Rubio says, addressing a large crowd of social conservatives and neocons.
Rubio brags about how he would reject a woman's right to an abortion, even if she has been raped. He praisingly describes the "pregnancy centers" that convince women to move forward with their pregnancies rather than terminating them—in many cases by feeding them information that has been "medically refuted," according to the New York Times. "Through ministry and the word of God and loving them, they are getting them to change their minds," Rubio says. "There are people whose lives were saved by this program. That's America."
But America has rejected Marco Rubio. The senator has only won two state primaries, and he came in fourth place in Michigan. Politico even predicts Rubio will lose Florida, his home state. Donald Trump continues to dominate the primary: He currently holds 446 pledged delegates to Cruz's 347 and Rubio's 151. According to the New York Times, Hillary Clinton's team has even started preparing a plan of attack against Trump for the general election.
Trump's success baffles the women of CPAC. In CPAC's straw vote, Texas senator Ted Cruz took first place with 40 percent of the vote, and Rubio came in second with 30 percent. Rubio's failure to gain popularity nationwide has sent social conservatives into a panic. In the women's bathroom, our photographer, Chuck Grant, overhears two girls crying because they heard rumors about Senator Rubio maintaining two mistresses. Outside the men's room, I hear a young girl wearing nude-colored shoes scream at another girl wearing nude-colored shoes, "We are witnessing the fall of Rome!"
Social conservative women's rejection of Trump poses a challenge to politicians gunning for seats in the Senate or House. While campaigning to take Arizona Senator John McCain's seat, Arizona State Senator Dr. Kelli Ward has both campaigned at Trump events and preached against Planned Parenthood and abortion rights. She has come to CPAC to court the religious right.
Before Rubio speaks, Ward meets me at a small fake town located inside the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center, where CPAC takes place. The mini-city includes a fountain, fake brick building, and benches. The Gaylord looks like a Washington DC-themed Las Vegas hotel, and Ward fits right in. "The grassroots are on fire!" Ward tells me, while wearing an Apple watch. "The [Republican establishment] works for the empire they've created for themselves—the people they deem worthy of."
Ward travels with her mom and her husband Michael. She makes her husband hold her purse. On one side, the bag shows an American flag. The other side features an opening to conceal a gun.
"You couldn't fit a [gun] in it with all the stuff you have in it," her husband jokes.
Ward loves the Second Amendment, along with other cliché Republican issues like a flat tax and the overturning of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. After she remembers that she's talking to a clearly gay journalist wearing a Von Dutch hat, she corrects herself on the latter issue, saying she just thinks the states should have handled the gay marriage issue themselves.
Ward praises Trump for opposing the "establishment" who works for "the empire," but she also adores Ted Cruz. The Texas Senator has a small chance of defeating Trump, and if she becomes a senator, Ward would need a good relationship with either a President Trump or a President Cruz. Ward seems to genuinely love Cruz, gushing over his attacks on a woman's right to an abortion and the times he has held up bills in the Senate. "Cruz has fought back against a lot of bad policy," she says. "He's been willing to be unpopular. I can't tell you a bill he's gotten through!"
Ward believes the millennials will become a socially conservative generation. I point out that Bernie Sanders has won 85 percent of the youth vote in Iowa, and she points at all the young women at CPAC. "I see a glimmer of conservatism today," Ward says. "They're valuing life."
Ward's female supporters, too, hate Trump's views on Planned Parenthood. At a "John McCain's Retirement Party" hosted by the Gun Owners of America in a penthouse room at the Gaylord, Ward's college-aged intern, Taylor, describes the majority of the Republican party as socially conservative. "This is a country founded on religion," Taylor says. "I think our party will support values of pro-life and traditional marriage." When I point out that Trump has seemed to won over American conservatives, Taylor corrects me.
"I don't think [Trump's] a conservative," she says.