The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.
Republicans have more women running for Congress this year than ever before. They have five female Senate nominees, one less than the record high set during the 2012 campaign. They also have 50 female House candidates, two more than in 2012.
This high-water mark for Republicans is important because single, white women, along with minority voters, are the last line of defense for Democrats hoping to keep the GOP from a wave election. [pullquote]
Historically speaking, minority voters are less inclined to go to the polls in midterm elections than in presidential contests. That being so, Democrats are focusing on pumping up turnout among college-educated, young, single women, who are considered more likely to vote.
“I haven’t seen gender gaps like this in any race until this year and we’re seeing them all over the place,” Nicole McCleskey, a Republican who polls for Public Opinion Strategies, recently told National Journal. She pointed to particularly high levels of male support for Republicans as part of the reason for this year’s yawning gender gap.
The gender gap has averaged about 13 points in senatorial and gubernatorial races since 2004. But this year the same races are averaging a gap of 20 points, ballooning to what National Journal called “historic proportions across 2014’s battleground states.”
By way of comparison, exit polls from the 2012 presidential election, showed President Obama winning the support of 55 percent of female voters over Republican Mitt Romoney, but only 45 percent of their male counterparts. Helpfully for the president, women made up 53 percent of all voters on that occasion.
The focus on women is glaring in the Colorado Senate race between two men, Sen. Mark Udall, the Democrat and his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner. The Republican is basically tied with Udall in polls. He has a failed to pull away more convincingly because he cannot transcend his opposition to abortion rights, including past support for “personhood” bill that outlaws abortion by equating a fertilized egg with a living child.
But the gender gap will also be pivotal in Senate races in Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan, Louisiana, Alaska. That, in term, means it will also be at the core of whether the GOP is able to take the Senate majority.
One intriguing twist in this cycle is that Democrats have shifted from talking about a “War on Women.”
Instead, they rely on references to GOP opposition to equal pay laws, to renewing the Violence Against Women Act, to increasing the minimum wage, and to opposition to the Affordable Care Act, including its increased access to contraception and preventive care including mammograms and care for pregnant women.
It is hard for even the best female Republican candidates to counter the fact that Republicans in Congress have repeatedly voted to repeal the health care law. It is hard for anyone to ignore that Republican-majority state legislatures are forcing the small number of red-state abortion clinics to shut down by passing restrictive anti-abortion laws.
Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, recently found that “Democratic campaigns are succeeding in making the candidates’ positions on women’s issues become the second biggest reason voters are planning to vote for Democrats — after the economy.” The headline on the press release for the poll’s results, written by its sponsors: “Unmarried Women Support Democratic Candidates by 22 points in 12 Battleground States.”
The poll led Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, to joke, “if single women vote Democrat, then Republicans would be wise to start a dating service.”
Short of having the male-dominated GOP marry single female Democrats, the party’s best hope was to recruit strong women candidates for 2014.
It did just that. This year’s class of Republican candidates includes Joni Ernst in Iowa; Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia; Monica Wehby in Oregon; and Terri Lynn Land in Michigan. It is a start for the white-male-dominated GOP, even if this group is still outnumbered by female Democrats running for Senate.
In addition to recruiting more women and getting more of them through the primaries, the party has also avoided ending up with politically inept female candidates such as 2010’s Christine O’Donnell (“I am not a witch”) and Sharron Angle (“I’m tired of some people calling me wacky.”).
There is even more good news for the GOP’s effort to cut into the Democrats’ advantage with women. Older, white married women are polling more strongly behind Republican candidates.
As a result some generic polls in this year’s campaign are making news by showing likely women voters with an overall preference for Republicans, not Democrats, to control Congress.
In Republican advertising, the wives, daughters and mothers of male candidates are being prominently featured this cycle.
And Republican female candidates are directly confronting the issue in advertising by speaking to women.
In Michigan, the Republican senate candidate, Terri Lynn Land, has a television ad in which she looks into the camera and asks female voters if they believe she is “waging a war on women.” Then she says of her Democrat opponent: “As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters.”
It is a good ad. Land is a good candidate. But is it enough to overcome a GOP brand defined by decades of hostility on pay, abortion and national health care — top issues for young, women voters? We shall see.