GOP candidates are making interesting moves to win back a key constituency alienated by Donald Trump

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'Women Vote Trump' aims to grow support

Donald Trump's high unfavorable numbers among female voters have many conservatives frightened about the potential negative consequences it could have on congressional Republicans up for election on November 8.

But some see a potential model for winning over female voters alienated by Trump's rhetoric: the success of Sen. Cory Gardner.

In 2014, the then-congressman attempted to assuage female voters concerned about his conservative stance on abortion by proposing to allow over-the-counter birth control, a position endorsed by many in both parties.

RELATED: 9 prominent Republican politicians who have reversed course on Trump

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9 prominent Republican politicians who have reversed course on Trump (BI)
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9 prominent Republican politicians who have reversed course on Trump (BI)

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal

In a September op-ed for CNN, then-Republican presidential candidate Jindal described Trump as "a shallow, unserious, substance-free, narcissistic egomaniac."

"We can decide to win, or we can be the biggest fools in history and put our faith not in our principles, but in an egomaniac who has no principles," Jindal wrote.

But following Trump's victory in the Republican presidential primary, Jindal offered a very tepid endorsement of the real-estate magnate.

"I think electing Donald Trump would be the second-worst thing we could do this November, better only than electing Hillary Clinton to serve as the third term for the Obama administration’s radical policies," Jindal wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry

During his short-lived 2016 presidential bid, Perry called Trump a "cancer on conservatism" and criticized his inflammatory rhetoric about Mexican immigrants.

"Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant. It betrays the example of Christ," Perry said in his September concession speech. "We can enforce our laws and our borders, and we can love all who live within our borders, without betraying our values."

But after Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the race last week, Perry quickly endorsed the presumptive nominee.

"He is not a perfect man," Perry told CNN. "But what I do believe is that he loves this country and he will surround himself with capable, experienced people and he will listen to them."

REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky)

Last month, Paul said he would support Trump in a likely matchup between Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

But in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the former presidential candidate wasn't as fond of Trump, comparing him to infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. 

"Donald Trump is a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag," Paul said on Comedy Central.

He added: "A speck of dirt is more qualified to be president."

REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida)

Toward the end of his 2016 presidential bid, Rubio unleashed a flurry of rhetorical attacks on Trump.

Among other things, the Florida senator criticized Trump's hypocritical immigration policy prescriptions, joked about Trump urinating in his pants at a GOP debate, and questioned whether voters should hand "the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual."

But last month, Rubio began to shift tone. He said he would support any Republican candidate, including Trump, though he ruled out any interest in being Trump's vice president. 

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

Haley confirmed last week that she would "respect the will of the people" and would support Trump's candidacy.

Haley's tune was less favorable in February, when she hit the primary campaign trail in her home state for Sen. Marco Rubio, prompting Trump's ire.

"Bless your heart," Haley said, after Trump labeled her an embarrassment. 

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie became the first major former presidential candidate to endorse Trump. But just a few months earlier, he was warning voters about Trump's preparedness for the office.

"We do not need reality TV in the Oval Office right now," Christie said in December. "President of the United States is not a place for an entertainer."

REUTERS/Chris Keane

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

When Walker dropped out of the presidential race after just three months, the governor called on many of his Republican presidential rivals to do the same in order to consolidate support around a conservative candidate.

The governor took a thinly veiled shot at Trump, criticizing the real-estate mogul's brash rhetorical style.

"It has drifted into personal attacks. In the end, I believe that the voters want to be for something and not against someone," Walker said in his concession speech. "Instead of talking about how bad things are, we want to hear how we can make them better for everyone."

Yet late last month, Walker signaled he'd support the GOP nominee against Clinton — though he refused to say Trump's name.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Tim Scott (South Carolina)

Scott, a former Rubio endorser, said last week that he would support the Republican presidential nominee.

Though Scott was not a particularly vocal critic of the real-estate magnate, he did condemn Trump's initial refusal to denounce an endorsement from the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Any candidate who cannot immediately condemn a hate group like the KKK does not represent the Republican Party, and will not unite it," Scott wrote in a statement. "If Donald Trump can’t take a stand against the KKK, we cannot trust him to stand up for America against Putin, Iran, or ISIS."

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Thom Tillis (North Carolina) 

In an interview on Fox Business last year, Tillis, who recently said he would endorse Trump, characterized the former reality-television star's Republican-debate performance as "more entertainment" than policy. He also criticized the presumptive nominee's rhetoric for inciting violence at campaign rallies.

"He has some responsibility for it," Tillis said of the violence at Trump's rallies.

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Gardner's strategy — making himself more palatable to female voters — may have worked: The senator lost the female vote by 8 points, significantly lower than Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett's 17-point win among female voters in 2010.

"Gardner really walked that tightrope brilliantly," GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, the president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider.

"It's all about blunting 'War on Women' attacks for these US Senate candidates in tough states," he added. "They need to ensure the social issues don't become the main issue in their individual races. They'd much rather focus on the economy and national security where the political terrain is better."

With Trump's unpopularity with female voters, many Republican members of Congress are tearing a page out of Gardner's playbook, blazing their own path down the middle on women's health issues in order to keep Republican and Independent women from staying home or supporting Democrats.

Caught in one of the toughest reelection fights of the year, last week, Sen. Mark Kirk released an advertisement highlighting his refusal to endorse Trump. But the ad also prominently noted the senator's support for abortion access, a rare position among his GOP Senate colleagues.

"He's a leader on protecting a woman's right to choose. And Mark Kirk bucked his party to say that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president," a narrator in the ad said. "Mark Kirk. Courageous and independent."

This week, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that would've kept abortion clinics from operating unless the doctor had admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Within a few hours, Kirk took to Twitter to praise the law.

And the Illinois senator isn't alone.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, running neck-and-neck with Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, is also trying to strike a more conservative, yet similar chord with female voters.

Last month, the Granite State senator released an ad highlighting her support for women's health issues, including her bipartisan bill mandating free mammograms from insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid. And while she's voted to defund Planned Parenthood repeatedly, last year, Ayotte balked at efforts by Senate Republicans to include provisions in a must-pass government spending bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood and likely forced a government shutdown.

Trump and Kirk's attempt to strike less partisan poses on women's health issues come as the presumptive Republican nominee's popularity among women has caused demographic headaches for other conservative candidates running in purple states.

A Quinnipiac University poll last month found 51% of male voters supported Trump, while only 35% said they would back Hillary Clinton. Among female voters, 54% supported the presumptive Democratic nominee to Trump's 30%, accounting for a 40-point swing between male and female voters. The gender gap is one of the largest in recent electoral memory, doubling the 20-point swing between male and female voters in the 2012 presidential race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Both candidates have struggled to navigate an election with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.

While Ayotte maintaining that she would support but not endorse Trump, Kirk recently rescinded his support for the real-estate mogul.

RELATED: Donald Trump supporters

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A masked supporter dances before Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign town hall event in Wausau, Wisconsin April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Ben Brewer
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
People say the pledge of allegiance before listening to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he speaks at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters (L-R) Annalisa Wales, 12, Scarlett Wales, 9, Barbara Wales, 68, and Katherine Wales, 10, wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
People listen to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in Sacramento, California, U.S. June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A man carries a sign for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally to highlight POW-MIA issues on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, U.S. May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
People watch Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump address the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally to highlight POW-MIA issues on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, U.S. May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters attend a rally with Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in San Diego, California, U.S. May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Marcos Spence solicits volunteers to work for the campaign of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as they stand in line before the start of his rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S. May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A supporter holds a sign as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally in Anaheim, California, U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters line up to enter a convention center where U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Anaheim, California, United States May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump arrive before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A supporter of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump arrive before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stand in line before the start of his rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S. May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a Trump campaign rally at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump wearing a "Trump for President '16" t-shirt listens to the candidate speak at a campaign rally at the airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S. On April 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
Activists of Hindu Sena, a Hindu right-wing group, perform a special prayer to ensure a victory of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in the upcoming elections, according to a media release, in New Delhi, India May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
Supporters hold signs as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Supporters cheer as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Supporters hold signs as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign during a rally in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, May 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Delegate Douglas Marshall in the Donald Trump booth during the second day of the Republican Party of Texas state convention on May 13, 2016 in Dallas. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
Supporters look on as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Lynden, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign during a campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes a photo during a campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump supporters Josh (R), and his father Jeff Schimek (L), wait for him to speaks during a Town Hall at the Racine Civic Centre Memorial Hall April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
Supporters (L) of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump point and scream at an anti-Trump demonstrator (R) holding a sign reading "More Like Make America Racist Again" sign during a Trump campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in De Pere, Wisconsin, United States, March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Bob Bolus, a supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, gives the thumbs up to drivers as they pass by on Super Tuesday in Middleburg Heights, Ohio March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Rosemary Harder wears a hat supporting Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during a news conference, after the Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri primary elections, held at his Mar-A-Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Florida March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Alex Stypik joins Trump (L) on stage at a campaign rally in Bloomington, Illinois March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
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Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer on their candidate at a Trump campaign rally in New Orleans, Louisiana March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Layne Murdoch Jr.
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Cadillac, Michigan, March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a sign at a campaign rally at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia February 29, 2016. REUTERS/ Philip Sears
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrates with a cigar at Trump's 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A campaign volunteer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a hat signed by Trump during a rally with supporters in Gaffney, South Carolina February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Freda Green, of Louisiana, wears a hat in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A veteran of both the Korean and the Vietnam War, C.J. Dauzt wears a sticker in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
10-year-old Ian Linden, of New Orleans, holds a sign in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait for the start of his campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Anne-Sophie Marquis cradles her doll Clare, wearing a button supporting U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, at a Trump campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Young supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump wait for Trump to speak at a veteran's rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Mark Palzer shows his support for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Barbara Tomasino shows her support for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Liberty University students and supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wear letters spelling his name before his speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a National Rifle Association shirt before his speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Trump supporters Joshua Smith (from Left) and Seth Stephens, both of Aiken, South Carolina and Rona Bartolomucci of Hilton Head Island, wait along the front buffer before a rally for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill
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Attendees wait for the start of a campaign event with Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, in Bloomington, Illinois, U.S., on Sunday, March 13, 2016. After violent protests prompted Donald Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday night, the Republican presidential front-runner blamed the activist group MoveOn.Org and supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders for the chaos, while defending his own harassed supporters. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, left, stands with a man he called onto the stage from the crowd because of the 'Legal Immigrant For Trump' t-shirt he was wearing, during a campaign event in Bloomington, Illinois, U.S., on Sunday, March 13, 2016. After violent protests prompted Donald Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday night, the Republican presidential front-runner blamed the activist group MoveOn.Org and supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders for the chaos, while defending his own harassed supporters. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 11: A supporter exists the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cancelled a campaign rally over safety concerns March 11, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Illinois Republican presidential primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)
Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump gather prior to a Trump Rally at the Peabody Opera House on March 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. / AFP / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump gather prior to a Trump Rally at the Peabody Opera House on March 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. / AFP / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
RADFORD, VA - FEBRUARY 29: A campaign rally for Donald J. Trump, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, at the Radford University Dedmon Arena in Radford, Virginia, on Monday, February 29, 2016. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)
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For their part, Democrats are attempting to paint both Kirk and Ayotte as flip-flopper on abortion, contraception, and women's health issues generally.

A Democratic source in Illinois pointed out to Business Insider that Kirk's recent pro-choice ad only aired on television in the Chicago television area, which leans further left, and did not air in markets where some of the higher concentrations of conservative voters would be watching.

This week, Democrats criticized both senators' support for a Zika funding bill that contained what they called a "poison pill" amendment that proposed blocked family planning clinics such as Planned Parenthood from accessing funds provided to fight the Zika virus, which can be spread sexually.

Groups that have endorsed Duckworth like Emily's List and NARAL Pro-Choice America asserted that the votes exposed Ayotte and Kirk's waffling on reproductive health issues.

"When it comes to protecting access to women's health care, actions are more important than words. Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte have time and again failed women with their votes against protecting women's reproductive rights," Emily's List press secretary Rachel Thomas told Business Insider in a statement.

For its part, Kirk's campaign asserted that Democrats were blowing the senator's vote on the Zika bill out of proportion, noting that the bill extends funding for veterans and whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Another unreal and blatantly false attack by the Duckworth camp," Campaign manager Kevin Artl told Business Insider.

Still, while some Republicans see Garnder's winning campaign as a format for succeeding with female voters, Democrats have a different electoral model in mind.

During his 2012 US Senate bid in Missouri, Todd Akin ignited a media firestorm by claiming that women rarely get pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape" because they have ways to "shut that whole thing down." Several Democrats who spoke with Business Insider said that they planned to make Trump this cycle's Akin, holding Republicans accountable for all of Trump's controversial statements about women, regardless of whether they formally endorsed the Republican presidential nominee.

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