To Democrats, the war on women is a winner.
Terry McAuliffe has pulled ahead of Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor's race almost exclusively by crushing him among female voters.
A series of McAuliffe's ads frame Cuccinelli's conservative stances on abortion, birth control and even divorce as attacks against women -- similar to the "war on women" strategy President Obama used against Mitt Romney in 2012 and that Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Michael Bennett of Colorado and Patty Murray of Washington used to beat back GOP opponents in 2010.
Now, in the marquee race of 2013, McAuliffe's popularity among female voters is raising Democratic hopes that the strategy will be equally effective in two of the most closely watched races of 2014: Filibustering abortion-rights hero Wendy Davis said last week she will challenge Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott for governor of Texas while North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan is fending off a Republican lawmaker who backed strict abortion limits tucked into a bill on motorcycle safety.
"What we're seeing in Virginia is incredibly validating," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is airing a $1 million television and radio campaign against Cuccinelli. "I believe this race has set the table for these issues and for women to be determinative in 2014."
Closing the gender gap was one of the major goals identified by the Republican National Committee in a sweeping review of the 2012 election, but a new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll suggests the GOP is still struggling to connect with women. Only 14 percent of women said the Republican Party better represented their views. More than twice as many women, 33 percent, said the party had drifted further away, while 46 percent saw no change.
The Republican establishment, which had watched promising Senate candidates like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri fizzle in 2012 after making insensitive comments about rape and abortion, cringed earlier this year when Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said "the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low" in a debate over banning abortions after 20 weeks. The bill passed in June.
"Republicans clearly haven't learned the lessons of the last campaign," said Democratic pollster Margie Omero. "These issues are a vivid reminder of how extreme the Republican Party has become."
Early 2016 polls showing Democrat Hillary Clinton leading potential Republican rivals in part because of double-digit advantages among women are another warning sign for the Republican Party. As Clinton mulls a presidential bid, she has been more open than she was in her 2008 campaign in talking about women breaking barriers – with an understated wink to her audience. Emily's List, which raises money for female candidates who support abortion rights, has launched a "Madam President" campaign to elect the first female president and held town halls in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But girl power has its limits. Democratic underdog Barbara Buono has gotten little if any traction from assailing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for vetoing equal-pay legislation and Planned Parenthood funding (though she has yet to put any money behind the attacks on television.) And three of the most high-profile Democratic Senate candidates backed by Emily's List are running in Republican-leaning states where they are unlikely to hang their campaign on women's issues. Democrats Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Allison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia don't mention the endorsement or abortion on their campaign web sites.
"I don't know how Democrats think (the war on women) is a positive message that can win," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who points out that the top issues for women are generally jobs and the economy. "I guess if you're bereft of a compelling record or compelling vision, you resort to talking about the war on women. It's an insulting premise and a limited strategy."
It's also questionable whether McAuliffe's focus on women's issues will translate to other races in which the Republican candidate has been less outspoken than Cuccinelli on issues like abortion. The attorney general spearheaded the state's crackdown on regulating abortion clinics and sponsored a "personhood" bill as a state lawmaker that said life began at fertilization and could have limited access to birth control. McAuliffe's top advisers acknowledge that the fierce debate in the state over the Republican-led legislature requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasound exams helped lay the groundwork for making the case against Cuccinelli "interfering" in women's private lives.
The strength of McAuliffe's women-focused offensive comes from the way he links it to a more sweeping accusation that Cuccinelli is outside the mainstream on a range of issues.
Cuccinelli says McAuliffe's attacks are misleading. One ad features a gynecologist who declares Cuccinelli "wants to make all abortion illegal," though he has said there should be an exception if the women's life is at stake. He has also insisted that he doesn't think the government should play a role in birth control.
"You all are seeing the ads," Cuccinelli said in the most recent debate against McAuliffe. "It's overwhelmingly negative. It is unbelievably false."
Cuccinelli has also tried to make up ground with a new ad that features a female Democratic member of the Richmond school board, Tichi Pinkney Eppes. "That Ken has some agenda against women? Ridiculous," she says.
But Cuccinelli's dwindling appeal among women could cost him an election in an off-year in which a Republican candidate was favored to win. In the latest Washington Post poll, McAuliffe's six-point lead was almost exclusively fueled by female voters, who prefer him by 24 points over Cuccinelli. The candidates were statistically tied among women in May.