GOP men tutored in running against women
By: John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer
December 5, 2013 05:02 AM EST
The National Republican Congressional Committee wants to make sure there are no Todd Akin-style gaffes next year, so it’s meeting with top aides of sitting Republicans to teach them what to say — or not to say — on the trail, especially when their boss is running against a woman.
Speaker John Boehner is serious, too. His own top aides met recently with Republican staff to discuss how lawmakers should talk to female constituents.
“Let me put it this way, some of these guys have a lot to learn,” said a Republican staffer who attended the session in Boehner’s office.
There have been “multiple sessions” with the NRCC where aides to incumbents were schooled in “messaging against women opponents,” one GOP aide said.
While GOP party leaders have talked repeatedly of trying to “rebrand” the party after the 2012 election losses, the latest effort shows they’re not entirely confident the job is done.
So they’re getting out in front of the next campaign season, heading off gaffes before they’re ever uttered and risk repeating the 2012 season, when a handful of comments let Democrats paint the entire Republican Party as anti-woman.
Akin dropped the phrase “legitimate rape” during the 2012 Missouri Senate race, costing himself a good shot at winning his own race and touching off Democratic charges of a GOP “War on Women” that dogged Republicans in campaigns across the country.
In the 2014 cycle, there will be at least 10 races where House GOP male incumbents face Democratic women challengers. More races could crop up as the cycle unfolds.
Some of the highest profile fights will take place in states like New York, Illinois, Florida and Virginia — the last where GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli was defeated recently due in part to being perceived as anti-woman.
Individual Republicans have continued to give Democrats plenty of ammunition about being insensitive to women’s issues. From Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) talking about rape and pregnancy at a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, to House Republicans passing a 20-week abortion ban in June, to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) blaming military sexual assault on “hormones,” there have been repeated instances where GOP lawmakers have come off as tone-deaf to female voters.
Yet Republican incumbents appear eager to avoid the mistakes of some of their predecessors.
Rep. Scott Rigell, who won his Virginia seat last time by about 1,000 votes and is running against a Democratic woman next year, said he wants to focus on economic issues, not social issues.
“I look at it this way — I wake up every day not thinking about the social issues,” Rigell said. “I sought office because I know we can do better on job creation and I’m also concerned about our fiscal trajectory.”
Rigell, who said he gets his best counsel from his wife, also said he wants to focus on issues that benefit the “full fabric of our communities.”
“I think as part of that we’re strengthening things that are important to women and, of course, to men as well. Early childhood education, making sure that our children are safe and they have great opportunities once they get out of high school or college,” he said.
Yet the longtime “gender gap” between the parties continues to be pretty stark for the GOP. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost women to Barack Obama by 11 percentage points in the 2012 election, and the 2013 campaigns saw a similar trend. A series of recent polls show a continued double-digit lead for Democratic candidates among women, with the margin soaring to much higher levels among single female voters. The GOP — which lost female voters by large margins in every competitive Senate race in the 2012 election — also saw a 10-point increase in its unfavorability rating to among women to 63 percent, according to an October ABC/Washington Post poll.
Of course, female Democratic challengers will have to surmount all the hurdles that anyone seeking to knock of an incumbent always faces: lack of name recognition; difficulty getting media coverage; and most of all — the single biggest issue — a huge fundraising gap.
Yet Democrats have hopes that these candidates will help lead them to the majority in November 2014.
“Our essential strategy is to recruit problem-solvers. And with this Republican Congress having been so destructive to the concerns women have, we are putting a special emphasis on recruiting women who will end those problems,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Israel added: “I can’t promise you they will go dollar-for-dollar with the Republican incumbent. But I can promise that their message, their mechanics, their mobilization will exceed whatever Republican incumbents are able to do.”
Democratic operatives are also ready to pounce, hoping to capitalize on Mitt Romney’s dismal performance attracting female voters in the presidential election.
Jess McIntosh of Emily’s List said that the 2012 election was a sea change for female candidates.
“That election was a mandate for women’s leadership, and I think it was an election where we saw women be the standard-bearers for the Democratic Party, and we also saw women’s issues be front and center,” McIntosh said, adding that it doesn’t appear Republicans have learned any lessons from their losses. “They seemed to decide the way to win back the women they had alienated is to continue to do the same things that alienated them in the first place.”
There are currently 78 female lawmakers in the House; 59 of them are Democrats. The partisan gender gap is similar in the Senate, where of the record 20 female senators currently serving in the 113th Congress, 16 are Democrats versus only four Republicans.
Yet Republicans insist they aren’t ceding the ground to Democrats when it comes to trying to attract female candidates.
“We’re doing the same thing against them,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “We may have more women challengers now than we did in the last cycle. … We’ve got some great women candidates and it’s been a focus of ours too.” Walden specifically named Mia Love in Utah and Martha McSally in Arizona, both of whom could end up running against male Democratic incumbents.
Like other Republicans, Walden said party leaders have addressed messaging against female challengers with their own incumbents.
“You need to be very careful in how you approach any group and what you say,” Walden said when asked about House GOP leadership efforts to find female candidates. “That’s just Politics 101.”
In July, the NRCC unveiled Project GROW, which stands for Growing Republican Opportunities for Women. There have been several GROW outreach and recruitment events since that time, say GOP officials. “Recruiting women candidates is a top priority of the NRCC this cycle and we’ve had tremendous support from our women members of congress through our Project Grow initiative,” said Liesl Hickey, NRCC executive director.
Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) said she is working to try to recruit more Republican women to run for Congress, pointing out that only 19 of the 231 House GOP members are women.
“It’s a failure and one that absolutely must be addressed,” Wagner acknowledged.
She said women are pivotal to future elections since they make up the majority of potential voters, with the trend increasing in recent years.
“We’re not a coalition. We’re 54 percent of the electorate. We rule,” Wagner said. “We decide the elections going forward. We decide a lot of things.’
So far, there are female Republican candidates in 15 House races, but a number of them face difficult primaries and may not even make it into the general election. With roughly 40 to 50 competitive House races in play next year, the number of GOP women candidates will rise somewhat.
But for some, not speaking about gender will be their favored approach. Illinois Republican Rodney Davis is running against a woman, and he doesn’t plan to engage in woman-specific messaging.
“The decisions that we have to make aren’t limited to men, women, children, senior and they effect everyone. I think we’ve got some good opportunities to show how we can govern here in Washington, which is what everyone in America wants,” Davis said.