Democrats are not just hoping for another Todd Akin, they're trying to create one—and they think the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision just helped them do it.
Senate Democrats failed Wednesday in their bid to advance legislation that would negate the Court's contraception-coverage decision. But while canceling out the Court was the goal, it was never the whole point.
Instead, Democrats are trying to keep the national conversation focused on reproductive rights, hoping to goad Republicans into talking about the issue. The more they talk about abortion and contraception, the thinking goes, the more time will be spent on an issue where Democrats think they have the upper hand—and the more likely a GOP candidate is to doom his campaign with an Akin-like gaffe.
"The fascinating thing to me is I thought Republicans had learned their lesson about delving into women's health and reproduction, and tried to close that conversation down," said Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program. "I think what came out of the last election cycle was time after time and Republican after Republican meddling into this mess."
Akin lost a very winnable Missouri Senate race to the Democratic incumbent in 2012 after using the term "legitimate rape" in a scientifically misguided response to a question about whether women who are raped should have access to abortion. Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock lost a winnable race of his own while talking about rape and abortion.
In an election cycle where Democrats' majority is hanging by a thread, a similar mistake could be the difference.
With or without a gaffe, Democrats and advocacy groups are convinced that the contraception fight will help turn out a major voting bloc for Democrats: unmarried single women. This group currently makes up 25.6 percent of the voting-eligible population, according to a report from Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and the Voter Participation Center. A recent poll from Democracy Corps and Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund found that when unmarried women are exposed to "in your shoes" messaging, their Democratic margin increases by 14 points and their turnout increases by 10 points.
One House Republican has already stumbled onto trouble while talking about women.
Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina was quoted in the Washington Examiner over the weekend as saying during a panel on Republicans' messaging to women, "Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level." (Ellmers says the quote was taken out of context. The full transcript and audio, with a link to the initial article, is here for those wishing to judge for themselves.)
As Democrats try to steer the conversation, reproductive-rights groups will be watching Republicans for anything they can use as campaign fodder. EMILY's List—a group dedicated to electing pro-abortion-rights women—is beginning a campaign called "GOP Summer School," which is specifically focused on highlighting any Republican gaffes.
Hoping to avoid 2012 repeats, Republicans are working on new strategies for the 2014 cycle, including casting the Hobby Lobby issue as one of religious liberty.
"When did the Democratic Party declare war on the Catholic Church?" Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked ahead of the vote Wednesday. "I recognize that scaring women by suggesting we're coming after your birth control may be good politics, but election-year politics should not trump religious liberty."
GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee accused Democrats of trying to change the subject from Obamacare—then proceeded to give examples of Americans experiencing rate shock under the health law.
"There's no reason to get into the contraception issue, because it's really not an issue here," said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. "[Democrats] are trying to make it an issue, because they want abortifacients that Hobby Lobby isn't providing."
"It's a stupid political move, that's all I can say," Hatch continued.
But Republican strategists who were around for Akin's "legitimate rape" comment in 2012 warn candidates to tread carefully on the issue. The GOP's continued meetings on how to connect with women show the party is still haunted by his loss, and members have denounced his return to the political scene with the release of his new book.
"The fact that the Supreme Court made the decision—Republicans should let that stand and not engage in the debate. It will get them nowhere and take them off the message of real issue Americans are concerned about," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for House and Senate leadership. "I think Republicans saw what happened with Todd Akin—it was a stupid and bad campaign strategy. It would be political malpractice for Republicans to engage with that kind of conversation."
This article appears in the July 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Democrats’ Plan to Create the Next Todd Akin.