Why Democrats Are Ditching the ‘War on Women’

The party that deployed “war” rhetoric to help defeat Mitt Romney is looking for less divisive ways to reach female voters this cycle.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: A woman cheers at a rally centered around reopening national memorials closed by the government shutdown, supported by military veterans, Tea Party activists and Republicans, on October 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. The rally was inspired by a desire to re-open national memorials, including the World War Two Memorial in Washington DC, though the rally also focused on the government shutdown and frustrations against President Obama. 
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
July 31, 2014, 5:35 p.m.

Demo­crats want to talk about “per­son­hood” and re­pro­duct­ive free­dom. They want to tell voters about a stub­born pay gap and wo­men hurt by a low min­im­um wage. But what they don’t want to do is talk about a “war on wo­men.”

In­deed, the party that so ef­fect­ively de­ployed the “war” rhet­or­ic to help de­feat Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 has now sworn off its catch phrase, drop­ping it al­most com­pletely from a cam­paign strategy that, in so many oth­er ways, is still very much about wo­men’s is­sues.

“[Say­ing] ‘Re­pub­lic­ans are wa­ging a war on wo­men’ ac­tu­ally doesn’t test very well,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Celinda Lake. “Wo­men find it di­vis­ive, polit­ic­al — they don’t like it.”

So Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, who need to ex­pand their mar­gins among fe­male voters and bring un­mar­ried wo­men to the polls in Novem­ber, are shift­ing the lan­guage they use to pitch these is­sues to voters. In­stead of the “war,” Lake said, test­ing has shown more ef­fect­ive lan­guage casts Re­pub­lic­ans’ po­s­i­tions as “too ex­treme” or the GOP as “out of touch with wo­men’s lives.”

The phrase “war on wo­men” arose fairly early in 2012, around the time ra­dio com­ment­at­or Rush Limbaugh re­ferred to act­iv­ist Sandra Fluke as a “slut.” The party used the no­tion of a Re­pub­lic­an “war on wo­men” to help bring down Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial bid and ap­peal to wo­men in swing states who ul­ti­mately helped Pres­id­ent Obama se­cure a second term.

Those same is­sues re­main po­tent in many of the most com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races across the elect­or­al map: Col­or­ado, Ken­tucky, New Hamp­shire, and North Car­o­lina, to name a few, are places where wo­men’s is­sues have already played prom­in­ently.

“I think that phrase was a 2012 thing — but the is­sues are very much alive and well, es­pe­cially here,” said Chris Har­ris, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Sen. Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado.

Ud­all’s cam­paign against GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner has fo­cused in large part on Gard­ner’s pre­vi­ous sup­port for a “per­son­hood” amend­ment; that is­sue showed up in Ud­all’s first TV spot of the year. “It comes down to re­spect, for wo­men and our lives,” the ad says. “So Con­gress­man Cory Gard­ner’s his­tory pro­mot­ing harsh an­ti­abor­tion laws is dis­turb­ing.”

Not­ably, it’s Re­pub­lic­ans who most of­ten in­voke the “war on wo­men” these days, usu­ally as a con­dem­na­tion of Demo­crat­ic tac­tics and an ef­fort to turn the neg­at­ive con­nota­tions of the phrase back on the Demo­crats.

Sen­ate can­did­ate Terri Lynn Land told Michigan voters in an ad that Demo­crats “want you to be­lieve I’m wa­ging a war on wo­men.” Former Hew­lett Pack­ard CEO Carly Fior­ina launched a su­per PAC to “shame Demo­crats who play the ‘war on wo­men’ game.” And Ted Cruz de­scribed a piece of le­gis­la­tion as “a very real mani­fest­a­tion of a war on wo­men.”

“Re­pub­lic­ans would much rather talk about the rhet­or­ic sur­round­ing wo­men’s is­sues than the is­sues them­selves be­cause they don’t really have an agenda to run on,” charged EMILY’s List press sec­ret­ary Marcy Stech.

The more ef­fect­ive way for Demo­crats to make their case with fe­male voters, strategists say, is by us­ing con­crete ex­amples of is­sues that af­fect wo­men to prove their point: equal pay, abor­tion, and con­tra­cep­tion, among oth­ers.

“We are on much stronger ground when we talk about the spe­cif­ics than when we talk about the cat­egory,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Mark Mell­man. “And so when we talk about Re­pub­lic­ans who want to make abor­tion il­leg­al, Re­pub­lic­ans who want to ban equal pay for equal work “¦ the spe­cif­ic policy is­sues mat­ter. That’s where the power is.”

That is­sue set is dif­fer­ent in every state, op­er­at­ives say: Equal-pay is­sues play par­tic­u­larly well in South­ern red states on the map this year, for ex­ample.

Ken­tucky Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes’s latest ad fea­tures a fe­male voter talk­ing about equal pay and the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act as proof that Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is out of touch with wo­men in the state. “Sen­at­or [Mc­Con­nell], why did you vote two times against the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act and en­for­cing equal pay for wo­men?” asks Ilene Woods, a voter from Lynch, Ky.

Grimes fol­lows by say­ing Mc­Con­nell “must be for­get­ting that over half the voters in Ken­tucky are wo­men like Ilene.”

Re­pub­lic­ans say the “war on wo­men” rhet­or­ic — whatever the ter­min­o­logy used — is Demo­crats’ way of tak­ing the fo­cus off of oth­er is­sues like the still-strug­gling eco­nomy.

“The play­book’s the same,” said GOP poll­ster Kel­ly­anne Con­way. “They may be dress­ing it up in kinder, gentler terms, but it still ig­nores the fact that the reas­on the ma­jor­ity of wo­men dis­ap­prove of the pres­id­ent’s per­form­ance is be­cause they don’t see the eco­nomy do­ing well.”

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