Will Trump campaign's rape comments hurt GOP?

Story highlights

  • Comments from Trump and his aide add to string of stumbles from Republican candidates who have made comments about rape
  • GOP leaders have made an effort to repair the party's bruised image, counseling candidates on artful ways to talk to and about women
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(CNN)Donald Trump's nascent presidential campaign keeps running into the toxic R-word: rape.

For Trump, it started on the first day of his White House bid. The wealthy real estate magnate referred to some Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and subsequently doubled down with eyebrow-raising comments. Defending his remarks, he recently told CNN's Don Lemon: "Someone's doing the raping."
Michael Cohen, Trump's senior counsel, sparked fresh controversy this week by making the claim that "you cannot rape your spouse." The adviser, who apologized on Tuesday for making an "inarticulate comment," was pushing back against an article that reported on a decades-old rape accusation against Trump by his then-wife, Ivana. Trump distanced himself from the adviser in a Tuesday night interview with Lemon, saying Cohen didn't speak for him.
    And late Tuesday, it was revealed that Trump in 2011 lashed out at a lawyer who requested a break to pump breast milk in the middle of a deposition, saying: "You're disgusting."
    The comments from Trump and his aide add to a string of stumbles from Republican candidates who have made offensive comments about sexual coercion or have spoken inarticulately about women's reproductive issues. In the 2012 cycle, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin sparked a firestorm after he claimed that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy. The same year, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock drew fire when he alleged that pregnancies resulting from rape were "something that God intended to happen." Both races were seen as winnable for Republicans.
    Heading into 2016, many Republicans hope Trump's campaign will be seen as something of a political anomaly and that its comments surrounding rape won't tarnish the rest of the party.
    "When questioned on specifics, they're the team that has spent more time on prime time than all other campaigns combined, but they're really not ready for political prime time," Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said of the Trump operation. "I don't know anybody who thinks he's representative of the party."
    Cohen's remarks on spousal rape came in response to a Daily Beast reporter's inquiries about past allegations from Trump's ex-wife, Ivana Trump. According to the 1993 book, "Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump," Ivana allegedly described one sexual encounter with her ex-husband as a "violent assault," going as far as to characterize it as rape.
    At the time of the book's publication, Ivana walked backed the rape accusation, saying: "I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense." She released another statement on Tuesday after the publication of the Daily Beast article, labeling the story as being "totally without merit" and stating that she and Trump are "best of friends."
    Trump's campaign quickly distanced itself from Cohen's inflammatory remarks, but not before Democrats seized the opportunity to again paint the GOP with a broad brush on the sensitive issue of rape.
    "This is a new low. Rape is rape. Full stop. End of story. There is no difference or division between 'forcible,' 'legitimate,' 'marital' or any other label Republicans slap on before the word 'rape,'" Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said in a statement. "It's a pattern of outrageous comments that must stop, and Republicans should call it what it is -- despicable."
    Wasserman-Schultz's statement alluded to controversial ways in which Republicans have discussed rape in the past, comments that the Democratic Party has capitalized on to cast the GOP as waging a "war on women."
    In recent years, Republican leaders have made a concerted effort to repair the party's bruised image on this front, counseling candidates on artful ways to talk to and about women.
    GOP strategists point to 2014 as a cycle when the Democratic "war on women" strategy backfired. One of their prime examples is former Democratic Colorado Sen. Mark Udall's failed re-election bid. Udall, who made women's reproductive issues such a centerpiece of his campaign that he was dubbed by some in the local media as "Mark Uterus," lost to Cory Gardner.
    "Some of the most successful candidates (in 2014) were the ones who took on the war on women unapologetically, unabashedly," said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has coached candidates on gender issues. "In 2012, the war on women was highly effective for the Democratic Party and for President Obama's re-election. In 2014, it fell flat and you had a record number of pro-lifers being elected."
    Still, there is particular pressure on Republicans to speak articulately and sensitively about women and gender this presidential cycle, with Hillary Clinton leading the presidential race on the other side of the aisle. As a candidate, the former secretary of state has not shied away from discussing reproductive issues such as abortion, as well as sounding a feminist tone in her public speeches.
    Many GOP strategists insist the controversial remarks from Cohen and Trump do not represent the party. In particular, they pointed out that Cohen is not even a Republican (Cohen has previously told CNN he is a registered Democrat).
    Christine Matthews, a GOP pollster who has been outspoken on how the party can better compete for women's votes, said Cohen's party affiliation makes it all the more "tenuous" for Democrats to try to draw the connection between the lawyer's remarks about rape and the Republican Party's values.
    "You'd have to work really hard to connect the dots between what Trump's lawyer said, which was ridiculous, and Republicans," Matthews said. "I think -- excuse the pun -- that would be a trumped up story. That would be somewhat manufactured."