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These are the women who will decide the midterm elections

SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- When asked how she feels about President Donald Trump, Christine Rogers takes a deep breath.

She likes his policies and the tax cuts, and feels good about the state of the economy. She voted for him, after all, though very reluctantly, she adds, as she stands on the sidelines of a local high school football game. But when Rogers, a mother with a graduate degree in molecular genetics and microbiology, thinks about what she refers to as his "mannerisms" and "lack of diplomatic dignity," she brings both her hands to cover her face and cringes.

As a college-educated woman living in a key suburban congressional district (NJ-7), Rogers is the kind of voter who will help determine the balance of power in Congress in next month's midterm elections. Luckily for her congressman, five-term GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, Rogers isn't going to turn against the party just because she doesn't like the president's behavior. She likes Lance personally and finds him effective and accessible. But she recognizes that voters like her -- who appreciate nuance in a political climate that has become all about Mr. Trump -- may be something of a rarity these days.

"College educated women voters have always been open to Republican messages, and for the most part they are happy with Republican policies, especially the economy," says Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "But for them, this is a character election. It's 'I don't like the direction of the country because of the president's behavior.'"

Polls show white, college-educated women are backing Democrats this cycle by a significantly greater margin than they did in 2016. Hillary Clinton won this particular demographic by just six points in the presidential contest. A recent Washington Post survey found that 62 percent of white college women backed Democrats while 35 percent support Republicans. And data from the Pew Research center finds Democrats with a 36-point advantage among this group.

Since the battle for the House of Representatives runs through the suburbs, these types of women voters, who have a history of strong turnout  in midterm elections, will make up a majority of the voters in most of the battleground districts across the country. In focus groups and polling, Hickey is finding that even as Republican congressional candidates work to carve out their own identities separate from the president, many of these kinds of voters are essentially responding, "It's not you, it's him." Meaning Donald Trump.

At the same time, they "don't want all-out resistance," Hickey says. " They want compromise, bipartisanship and want things to get done."

A CBS News battleground tracker poll finds that 47 percent of college-educated women in key House districts plan to vote in November in opposition to Trump. Meanwhile, 24 percent say their vote is in support of Trump and 29 percent say their vote isn't about the president.

Asked about their main reason for voting, 45 percent of women with college degrees in battleground districts said their ballot would be in response to Trump, 18 percent said the economy, another 18 percent said the direction of the country, and another 18 percent said it would be about their feelings toward a candidate.

This demographic is reliable when it comes to voting in midterm elections: 80 percent said they voted in the 2014 and 2010 midterms, and 83 percent said they definitely plan to vote this November. But their political views vary: 41 percent identify as liberal, 28 percent as conservative, and 29 percent as moderate.

As Democrats go on offense in campaigns over health care, 73 percent of college educated women in battlegrounds say it a very important issue in the midterm. And 61 percent said immigration was very important, an issue Trump and Republicans have been driving on the campaign trail. Fifty-eight percent identified the economy very important, while 56 percent said gun policy, 55 percent said the Supreme Court, and 55 percent said taxes.

Some top battleground  districts where college-educated women voters figure to play a critical role include:

  • Texas 7th:  the suburbs of Houston, where GOP incumbent John Culberson faces a challenge from attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. CBS News rates this a "toss up."
  • Texas 32nd: the suburbs of Dallas where incumbent Pete Sessions faces a challenge from former NFL linebacker and voting rights attorney Colin Allread. CBS News rates this race a "toss up."
  • Virginia 10: The northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., where Democratic state senator Jennifer Wexton is challenging Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock. CBS News rates this race "lean Democrat."
  • Minnesota 2nd: Twin Cities-area suburbs where Rep. Jason Lewis faces a challenge from medical device executive Angie Craig. CBS News rates this race "edge Democrat."
  • Minnesota 3rd: Another Twin Cities-area suburb where Democratic businessman Dean Phillips is running against Rep. Erik Paulsen. CBS News rates this race "edge Democrat."
  • Illinois 6th: Chicago-area suburbs where Democratic businessman Sean Casten is running against GOP Rep. Peter Roskam. CBS News rates this race "edge Democrat."
  • New Jersey 11th: Where 12-term GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is retiring. GOP state assemblyman Jay Webber is running against Democratic former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill. CBS News rates this race "lean Democrat."
  • New Jersey 7th: GOP Rep. Leonard Lance facing a challenge from Democrat Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama. CBS News rates this race "toss up."

In a brief interview, Rep. Lance acknowledged the critical role women will play in congressional elections. He touted his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and for the Equal Rights Amendment. He also voted against the GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act, breaking with his party. But the most important issue he says he hears about from women voters is bipartisanship.

"This is a highly educated district, and people in this district vote for the candidate," Lance said, noting that he carried the district by 11 points in 2016, even as Clinton also carried it by 1 point, and that Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno won the district last year, even as she lost the state to Democrat Phil Murphy.

In the neighboring 11th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Mikie Sherrill is part of the history-making surge of women candidates running for office this cycle. At a campaign event in Montclair designed to showcase support and concerns from local women legislators, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg called the president "the harasser-in-chief" and said, "We're not sending Donald Trump a vote from the 11th District."

But for her part, Sherrill is aiming to balance the anti-Trump sentiments with more traditional Republican voters in her district. She identifies health care, the economy, and infrastructure as her top issues.

"For some people this is a reaction [to Trump], but for others it's a need for new leadership and support for more women in Congress," Sherrill said when asked about women voters deciding the election. "It's sort of a mixed bag in this district and a lot of swing districts."

"I have expressed my concerns about his policies against women in about the strongest way you can express them, which is running for Congress," she said. "Me tweeting out constantly in the middle of the night about divisive things and ranting about Trump, I don't think it would move the agenda for the 11th district forward. I just don't think it's productive."

  • Caitlin Huey-Burns

    Caitlin Huey-Burns is a political correspondent for CBSN