Democrats Read Virginia As A War-on-Women Winner

Success with the strategy in 2013’s marquee race has Democrats hoping it will be equally effective in big 2014 contests.

Members of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Pro-Choice America protest with their 'Etch A Sketch' in hand protest outside a hotel in Washington, DC, where Republican Presidental hopeful Mitt Romney was holding a political fundraiser on March 22, 2012. The protesters called for a stop on the war on women and object to Romney's proposal to stop federal support for Planned Parenthood. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Oct. 7, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

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