For a while, it looked like Democrats would have to stop accusing Republicans of waging a ”‘war on women” in 2014. Republicans were taking classes on how to talk to the ladies and members were under explicit instructions from the party’s establishment to not just change their tones, but to shut their mouths when it came to women’s bodies.
But the “binders of women” and “legitimate rape” narratives that dominated the 2012 elections have morphed into a self-inflicted wound that continues to fester in the Republican Party. Democrats now are dusting off their 2012 election playbook and pouncing on any GOP foible that even remotely resembles a Todd Akin rape gaffe.
“We are waiting for opportunity to present itself,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “It is not a hand we are overplaying. This is the hand [Republicans] keep giving us.”
At the Republican Party’s winter meeting last Thursday, former Arkansas Gov. and one-time GOP presidential nominee Mike Huckabee gave the Democrats midterm election fodder when he compared the Obama administration to “Uncle Sugar,” who provides birth control for women because Democrats think women “cannot control their libido.” “You have people in the party who keep stepping on these issues, saying things that they may well believe, but aside from their base, are not very popular,” says Jennifer Duffy, a campaign expert with The Cook Political Report.
But it’s not just a Republican Party image problem or a matter of rhetoric Democrats are hoping to highlight: Democrats are looking for any opportunity to point to the parties’ substantive policy differences, too.
Just hours before President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday, women’s issues dominated the legislative agenda. Democrats filed their amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires employers to provide birth control for their workers. Republican senators filed their amicus brief against upholding that portion of the law. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., delivered a speech at the National Press Club touting his Women’s Health Protection Act, which would ban states from enacting some of the 205 laws Republican-controlled statehouses have passed since 2011.
Meanwhile, House Republicans across the Capitol passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which would ban the government from offering tax credits to corporations and individuals who choose health care plans that offer abortion coverage.
Also Tuesday, eight Democratic women held a photo op with Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill Obama signed into law and one that extended the statute of limitations for women who wished to sue their employers for pay discrimination. It marked the first time in his presidency that Obama sought to define his party as the one to defend women’s equality -- a message that helped secure him his second term in the White House. Now, Democrats are hoping their focus on women’s rights can be a cure-all, the magic bullet that shields vulnerable lawmakers in Congress from the fallout of a rocky Obamacare implementation.
Democrats see the “war on women” narrative as a way to motivate unmarried women -- a key constituency for the party, but one that has a history of staying home in midterm elections -- to vote in 2014. Last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election gave Democrats a testing ground for implementing the strategy in an off-year election, and it worked. In that race, Democrats highlighted Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s “extreme” record on women’s health, and an exit poll conducted by the left-leaning Democracy Corps found that unmarried women voted by a 42-point margin to elect Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
“Democrats need these voters to win and that means turn out to vote. But in order to turn them out, Democrats must speak to the issues that matter to them most,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote.
Republican pollsters say Democrats’ strategy could backfire, because “the issues that matter most” to women aren’t related to abortion or contraception, and instead have everything to do with their pocketbooks.
“Our polls show that the most important issue to women as well as men is the economy and job creation and health care,” says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. “I can understand why the Democrats want to divert the attention from all those other issues, but those are the issues that are going to dominate the midterm election.”
Experts also warn that unlike in 2012, when the narrative surrounding the presidential election trickled down into congressional contests, each congressional race will have a much more localized focus. Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at American University who studies women and politics, says that voters in midterm elections rely heavily on their local newspapers to set the agenda, not the national news.
“It is a lot easier for a Republican candidate in an individual race to distance themselves from comments made by someone like Mike Huckabee in a midterm election cycle than it is in a presidential election year,” Lawless says.
It may be too early to know whether Democrats can take their “war on women” strategy all the way in 2014. But a lot depends on whether the Republican Party can keep its members from doing any more damage.
“The residue in 2012 is not salient. It needs to be reactivated,” Lawless says. “You cannot win the 2014 election based off Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin.”