By Juan Williams - 12/02/13 06:00 AM EST
As the 2014 midterm election season begins, the Democratic Party is in full bloom as the political home of the modern American woman.
For the last half-century, women were swing voters between the parties. A gender gap emerged in the 1980s with single women leaning toward the Democrats on issues from abortion rights to national defense.
Over the last decade, Democrats have tried to widen the gap by charging the GOP with conducting a “War on Women.” There are several fronts in that war, Democrats say: Republicans oppose easy access to contraception, oppose abortion rights and oppose expansion of entitlements to help the poor (who are disproportionately women and children).
A 2012 Pew survey found that 57 percent of women favor Democrats. Young, single, gay, minority and pro-abortion-rights women have been with the party for a while. Older, white, married women lean to the GOP. But now married, churchgoing women living in cities are also voting for Democrats.
That explains why an October ABC/Fusion poll found 60 percent of Democrats want more women elected to Congress. Republicans do not see the need. Only 26 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of Republicans want more women in Congress.
The two politicians who produce the most passionate response among Democrats, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). They stirred the Democratic base more than President Obama or Vice President Biden. Women are the future of the party.
Consider the following examples:
Hillary Clinton is the party’s clear choice to be their 2016 nominee for president. The battle for second place is between Vice President Biden and Warren, whose profile as a populist warrior for the middle class keeps rising. The power of a Clinton-Warren ticket is beyond question.
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) is the party’s lead negotiator on any budget deal.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) are the two leading voices in dealing with the military sexual abuse scandal.
The same female dynamic is evident in the House.
Democrats are led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), now the minority leader but also the first female Speaker in the nation’s history. The overwhelming majority of the record 78 women in the House are Democrats — 59 members.
A quarter of women now in Congress are freshmen elected in a 2012 wave that featured 20 female Democrats and only 4 Republicans.
The rise of Democratic women is tied to the rising power of female voters in the party’s base.
In the 2012 presidential election, 53 percent of the voters were female, and those women gave 55 percent of their votes to the Democrat, President Obama.
The extent of the female flavor of Democratic politics is currently on display in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There, Gillibrand is leading the fight to take military commanders out of the decision about whether to prosecute any military person accused of sexual assault. The New York senator’s approach is to create an independent commission on military sexual assaults.
Her proposal has won the support of more than 50 senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as well as the Tea Party’s leading voice in the Senate, Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
The opposition is coming from McCaskill. The Midwestern Democrat wants to keep the overwhelmingly male commanders in charge of deciding whether a sexual assault case goes to criminal proceedings but to deny commanders the right to dismiss a conviction. McCaskill’s proposal also makes it a crime to retaliate against anyone who reports a sexual assault.
McCaskill’s approach has the support of Pentagon leadership. She argues her approach prevents military leaders from being able to “wash their hands of any responsibility” and would result in more prosecutions for sexual abuse.
At the moment, Gillibrand has captured the spirit of underdog women fighting back against abuse in a male-dominated military. The Pentagon reported that, last year alone, there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and assault, and only 3,000 of those cases were reported.
The divide between the two powerful female Democrats is edgy because McCaskill won reelection last year by defeating GOP Rep. Todd Akin, who damaged his candidacy with talk of “legitimate rape” and near-total opposition to abortion.
So it is ironic that McCaskill is now the target of women’s rights groups. An advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in July said her proposal allows attackers to “continue to go free.” McCaskill recently told reporters that her critics are buying an “emotionally powerful” line “that to be against Gillibrand is to be against victims — and frankly, at times, it’s personally painful for me.”
The political lesson from this dispute is that on any issue relating to women, it is Democrats, and increasingly powerful female Democrats, who speak for America’s increasingly powerful women voters — now the controlling heart of today’s Democratic party.