Democrats resurrect War on Women messaging
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
February 26, 2014 05:00 AM EST
The war on women is back — bigger, broader and more central to White House and Democratic messaging than ever before.
Drawing on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection strategy — and the even larger margins among women that propelled Terry McAuliffe to victory in last year’s Virginia governor’s race — Democrats are rolling out a midterm strategy strongly focused on a pitch to women. And this time, it’s about much more than reproductive rights, access to birth control and funding Planned Parenthood.
“This is a driver,” said New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There may be issues that flare up or die down, but this is a driver of the next nine months.”
Democrats are stressing the benefits to women of Obama’s entire income inequality message, whether pushing for pay equity or highlighting the disproportionate number of women who would benefit from raising the minimum wage.
At the upcoming Working Families summit at the White House and in speeches around the country, Obama will expand the economic argument focused on women to stress workplace protections, expanded pregnancy leave and strengthening leave policies to allow for care of sick children. The DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are preparing to mount efforts focused on pay equity as the centerpiece of a larger economic argument targeting women.
And the Obamacare defense will be mounted largely as a priority for women — who would, Democrats say, bear the brunt of repeal effects via both increased costs and lowered protections.
Some activists are even trying to cast immigration reform as a women’s issue, too.
The logic is simple: Democrats tend to win elections when more women vote, and women tend not to vote as much in midterm years. Those numbers are even higher, in both respects, among unmarried women, who also tend to respond the most strongly to the economic appeal. With Democrats trying to hold onto the Senate, make gains in the House and win several key governor’s races, they need women showing up at the polls and voting for them in numbers that defy those trends.
If there’s anything approaching Democratic confidence about November, it’s this: Operatives love talking about a CNN poll earlier this month that found 59 percent of women — and 64 percent of women older than 50 — saying the Republican Party is out of touch.
In an election year that Republicans are trying to make a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, Democrats believe this is what they can get people talking about.
A lot of the force will be coming directly from the Oval Office. As the Obama reelection campaign stressed and White House aides continue to emphasize, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first law he signed, and, they say, these issues have never been far from his mind.
Of course, the president’s aides are aware of the politics, too: This is a proven, persuasive argument for them, and the messaging heading into the midterms isn’t a mistake. They eagerly point out that the section of his State of the Union built around the line, “I believe when women succeed, America succeeds,” received the most sustained applause of his whole speech and acknowledge that he’s not ad-libbing every time he’s included a mention of what his agenda means for women in nearly every speech since.
And it’s only February.
“It’s particularly important to have this discussion around these economic issues when you’re going into a midterm election, because, obviously, there’s always drop off,” said Page Gardner, founder of the nonpartisan Women’s Voices Women Vote (now the Voter Participation Center), which registers unmarried women and educates them about their economic stake in voting.
As White House aides acknowledge, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helped shape their approach, starting with the Women’s Economic Agenda she released last summer and continuing in private conversations with the White House and in public appearances since.
“Democrats’ economic agenda unleashes the full potential of America’s women into our society, energizing our economy and strengthening the middle class — the backbone of our democracy,” Pelosi said.
Now, she’s looking to expand the argument. House Democrats have already filed a discharge petition on the Paycheck Fairness Act and are planning to file another on the minimum wage this week. Look for Democrats to point out Republican resistance to both, with an emphasis on how that resistance has hurt women, on the trail and in campaign commercials all the way to November.
Of course, Democrats will also be spending a lot of time cutting new versions of the DCCC online ad that went up last week in the upcoming Florida special House election, lingering over the faces of women staring into the camera as a female narrator reminds them that the Republican candidate wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and is backed by people with even more extreme positions on abortion.
As much as they expand the women’s argument into economics, Democrats believe that nothing moves female voters like abortion rights — and they think they’ve got more than enough to go on, between GOP Senate candidates like North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who supports a personhood amendment, and Montana Rep. Steve Daines, who’s against abortion exceptions for rape and incest, or the mandatory ultrasound bills signed by Republican Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio.
Plus, there are all those Republican primaries and local town halls that Democrats are confident will produce a searing “legitimate rape” comment they’ll be able to spread far and wide, despite Republican media training aimed at keeping candidates from these kind of stumbles.
But now that’s just one part of the argument. Reflecting the larger shift, EMILY’s List — originally founded to back pro-choice female Democratic candidates around the country — is now talking with its candidates more and more about income inequality and Obamacare as women’s issues, backed by its new, broader research arm, American Women.
“Everyone is dying to have this conversation,” said EMILY’s List communications director Jess McIntosh.
Republicans’ “argument is that the issue of economic opportunity for women simply doesn’t exist: We don’t need to close the wage gap. We don’t need to raise the minimum wage,” McIntosh added. “Now Republicans get to be just as out of touch on economic issues as they are on social issues — which was a really high bar.”
Republicans say they’re coming into this year’s elections ready, no matter how many issues Obama and his party try to make about what Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski called Democrats’ “false war on women.”
Women, she said, know just how much the Democratic proposals will hurt, rather than help, them — and anyway, they’re not going to fall for what she called an obvious attempt to distract them from Obamacare.
“The Democrats can continue their desperate and dishonest war on women, but voters are beginning to wisen up and their message is getting old,” Kukowski said. “The minimum wage eliminating jobs will hurt female workers, Obamacare is hurting women who are more involved in health care decisions and household budgets.”
Republicans are themselves gearing up to spread what Kukowski says will be “a huge part of our messaging,” focusing an array of efforts on women, from a soon-to-be-launched program to recruit and identify female voters to finding and training female campaign operatives.
They’ll be fighting for support and turnout among women whom the DCCC Voter Protection Fund polls show rank economic issues like higher wages, job training, help for women-owned small businesses and protecting Medicare as their top issues. And Obama’s message, so far, appears to be appealing: VPF’s dial group data from the State of the Union shot straight up when the president talked about helping women, responding both to his message and to his empathetic tone. When Obama talked about pay equity, Republican women approved by more than 70 percent. Unmarried women hit 100 percent.
“You want to talk to these women in a way that will get them more interested in participating in the process,” Gardner said, “because they think candidates are speaking to them about their lives.”
And women aren’t the only ones Democrats believe they’ll sway by talking about economics and Obamacare as women’s issues.
“Most men respond positively to it, not so much on the fairness argument, as from the argument of, ‘If my spouse is making more money, then we have more money in our family to take care of our kids and provide the quality of life that we need,’” said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. “And obviously, the fairness of it is important to all of us, but it’s particularly important to women.”