Election 2014

The Republican War on Women Continues, Just More Quietly

Republicans are still saying crazy stuff about women. Just not quite as crazy as what Todd Akin said. Will women—and the media—notice?

10.13.14 9:45 AM ET

The GOP’s inability to relate to women is apparent once again on the campaign trail. There aren’t the obvious howlers like there were in 2010 when Todd Akin, the patron saint of goofy statements, rhapsodized about how a woman’s body shuts down in cases of “obvious rape,” obviating the need for abortion. But there are examples of tone-deafness (think Florida Rep. Steve Southerland’s mention of  “lingerie showers” for the ladies) to make fun of or be insulted by if you’re a woman, and there’s an ongoing effort by conservative Republicans to blur their records and fool women into thinking they’re moderates.

Awkwardness around women’s concerns isn’t limited to Republican men, who make up 89 percent of the GOP in Congress. Republican women contending for the House and Senate have run into buzz saws from women’s groups for playing up gender stereotypes or seeming to dismiss women’s interest in serious issues. New Hampshire Republican Marilinda Garcia called Democrats’ focus on equal pay and reproductive issues “scare tactics” to motivate voters like herself, a young and single Hispanic woman. She wants to talk about national security and energy independence, but a remark she made calling women “emotional roller coasters” while debating a 2007 abortion bill has come back to haunt her.

But here’s the catch: Garcia made that remark in the context of supporting an effort to repeal New Hampshire’s 2003 law requiring teenage girls seeking abortions to notify their parents. She was talking about a pregnant teen and added, almost parenthetically, “most women are emotional roller coasters – but a pregnant teen is an emotional roller coaster going at warp-speed.” While Garcia is a Tea Party-backed candidate and incumbent Democrat Ann McLane Kuster has other issue differences with her, this is the one that Democrats think will short circuit Garcia’s momentum in a race where she has pulled ahead. pay dividends at the ballot box.

In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land’s ad rebutting the charge that as a Republican she is waging a “war on women” won praise from the political pros for its imaginative approach. “Really. Think about that for a moment,” she says, letting the charge sink in. Then a good 12 seconds passes, Land says nothing, sips from a coffee mug, looks at her watch, and concludes, “I approve this message because, as a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than (Rep.) Gary Peters.” Land gets an A-plus for creativity, but women voters apparently aren’t buying gender as an agenda; the Michigan senate race has one of the largest gender gaps, in favor of the Democrat, Peters.

But it’s Florida’s Southerland who is the poster child this season for insensitivity. His supporters hosted a men-only fundraiser with this admonition on the invitation: “Tell the misses not to wait up.” Elected in the GOP wave of 2010, he is trailing challenger Gwen Graham, daughter of former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham, the state’s equivalent of royalty. Asked about the retrograde invitation, Southerland, a mortician and businessman, rebounded with these questions: “Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?”

Male candidates used to agonize over how to talk to a female opponent in a debate, and how to avoid appearing to talk down to women. But now just about anything goes, even blatant falsehoods.  Southerland aired a TV ad that claims he voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, when he was one of 138 Republicans who voted against its passage. He supported a watered-down version that wouldn’t have extended protections to same-sex spouses, Native Americans, or undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence. It was one of those cases of “I voted for it before I voted against it,” but the ad doesn’t say that.

Southerland has lots of company among Republicans when it comes to adapting past positions in order to appeal to women voters. Senate leader Mitch McConnell had his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, narrate a TV ad that says he “co-sponsored the original Violence Against Women Act” and supported a version that contained “stronger protections than Obama’s agenda would allow.” McConnell voted against the VAWA when it was first introduced in 1994. He did support its reauthorization in 2000 and 2005 when it passed Congress with a big bipartisan majority. It only became controversial in the last two years when Republicans wanted to leave out certain groups while inserting mandatory prison sentences of five to 15 years for offenders. Domestic abuse awareness groups opposed the provision, saying it would discourage victims from reporting.  Politifact rated the ad “mostly false.”

McConnell routinely enhances his voting record on health care in an effort to appeal to women. Chao touted her husband’s support for more cancer screenings and preventive care for women at a “Women for Team Mitch” event even as he maintains his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which makes possible the stepped up preventive medicine women are receiving.

Last week two high-profile GOP candidates – Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Senate candidate Scott Brown in New Hampshire – sought to repair damaging attacks on their credibility by talking straight to the camera, summoning up as much sincerity as they could muster. Walker’s ad, “Decision,” says that legislation he signed mandating ultra sounds for women seeking an abortion protects the health and safety of women, but leaves the final decision to “a woman and her doctor.” This characterization is at odds with remarks he’s made in the past, where he has advocated against all abortions, even when the mother’s life is in danger, and in cases of rape and incest.

An Emily’s List ad airing in Wisconsin features a nurse practitioner speaking straight to camera telling politicians to “keep out of my examining room.” Challenged for reelection by Mary Burke, former executive at Trek Bicycle Corporation, Walker lags among women by 14 points, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. Still, the race is far from in the bag for Democrats. Walker leads among men by 28 points. Gender aside, Walker leads 50 to 45 percent among likely voters, and 46 to 45 percent among registered voters.

Brown, newly of New Hampshire, calls himself a “pro-choice Republican,” but incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen is reminding women voters that he co-sponsored legislation as a senator from Massachusetts to allow employers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage under the ACA if they had moral objections. He also supported restrictive measures on abortion as a state legislator in Massachusetts. Exasperated by what he calls “Jeanne Shaheen’s smear against me,” Brown declared in a debate with Shaheen last week that he’s been in favor of women’s access to contraception “since I was 18 years old.” Maybe eyes shouldn’t roll at that one and its suggestion of becoming sexually active, but some did, and for those keeping count, it was one more strike against the Republicans. In an election overshadowed by worries about ISIS and Ebola, many voters only now are deciding which candidate to believe, and what issues are most important. In a role reversal, Republicans would rather not talk about social and cultural issues, once a mainstay for the GOP, while Democrats are counting on women having long memories, and recognizing a new, albeit quieter, front in the “war on women.”