Updated at 3:57 p.m. on October 15.
The closing weeks of the midterm campaign have seen a furious uptick in personal, negative attacks in congressional races. In many competitive races, Democrats are accusing Republican candidates -- all male, mostly white -- of being anti-woman and, in some cases, violently so.
Republican Senate hopeful Ken Buck in Colorado spent this week defending his decision as a district attorney to not prosecute in the suspected rape of a college student, after liberal activists used the 2005 case to question his sensitivity to women. Buck defended himself, saying that the case was "not prosecutable." But the attack was only the latest chapter in a narrative against Buck that Democrats say puts him out of touch with Colorado's women. Earlier this year, during his successful primary fight against Jane Norton, Buck came under fire for saying that voters should support him because he does "not wear high heels." Critics have also pounded his opposition to legal abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
The effort to spotlight male candidates' potential weaknesses on women and women's issues is part of Democrats' calculated, endgame strategy to woo undecided female voters -- an influential bloc that historically trends toward their party -- just as many Americans are tuning into the midterm campaigns.
"They're late deciders; they're busy juggling their day-to-day life. They're not watching breathlessly the political debate in Washington, D.C.," said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster with Momentum Analysis. She has conducted surveys on "Wal-Mart Moms," a group defined as women with children under 18 living at home who have shopped at Wal-Mart at least once in the past month.
With Republicans consistently holding large advantages among men, one of Democrats' last, best hopes to hold off seismic losses in November will be their ability to turn out women who back them and recapture the votes of women who are considering the GOP. So far in the polls, Democrats are generally struggling with white working-class women but doing much better with their college-educated sisters. "Women are hanging in there with us, whereas the men, more or less, have retreated," said Andrew Meyers, a Democratic pollster who does extensive work in Colorado. "The more women that vote, the more likely we are to hang on at this point."
The House Democratic campaign operation has targeted at least nine Republicans, accusing them of having a "history of contempt, violence toward women, and wildly extreme policies toward women." Ohio Republican Tom Ganley, for example, appeared to be a strong challenger to Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton until a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her in his office last year. Ganley denied it and remains in the race, but Democrats have used the issue to attack him. His campaign has pulled its broadcast television ads, suggesting that he may be less than optimistic about his chances in the suburban Cleveland district.
The emotionally charged, hyper-negative debate in competitive races is one way that Democrats hope to break through the noise and connect to female voters. "Imagine your teenage daughter illegally strip-searched by police," suggests one of the toughest ads by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, targeting Republican Jeff Perry, who is running in the open-seat race to succeed Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. A former police officer, Perry played a role in two controversial strip-search cases that have come under scrutiny in his race against Democrat Bill Keating. In both instances, an officer under Perry's command was involved in strip-searching teenage girls. Perry has denied wrongdoing, but Democrats have been pounding away at the controversy.
In some cases, Democrats are using woman-centered appeals that are unconventional for their party. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., whose Erie-based district voted narrowly for John McCain in 2008, is running an emotional ad in which the candidate speaks directly to the camera, defending her opposition to abortion rights and stating, "I was an unmarried pregnant woman who chose life."
As Election Day approaches, Democrats are also trying to leverage one of their best assets in reaching out to women: Michelle Obama. The first lady kicked off a national campaign push this week that will have her crisscrossing the country for vulnerable House and Senate Democrats.
With approval ratings in the mid-60s, Obama is just as well-known as her husband but better liked. The strategy was quickly evident. At an October 13 event in Wisconsin for endangered Sen. Russ Feingold, she declared, "You see, more than anything else, I come to this stuff more as a mom."
Her timing may be good. A just-released Time/CNN/Opinion Research poll underscored the firewall that female voters could provide Democrats in tough Senate races in Delaware, Washington, and West Virginia. The candidates there are lagging far behind among likely male voters, but are enjoying double-digit leads among likely female voters. In Washington, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is down 15 points among men but up 31 points among women. In Delaware, women favor Democratic candidate Chris Coons by 27 points over Republican Christine O'Donnell. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is up 10 points among women over Republican John Raese.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report incorrectly identified Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa.
This article appears in the October 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.