Female Trouble

Dems Desperately Seeking the Gender Gap

Even Mitch McConnell—running against a woman—is running even among women. What’s going on? Simple. The Democratic women aren’t motivated.

10.28.14 9:45 AM ET

With the finish line approaching and key races stalemated, two new polls—in Colorado showing Democrat Mark Udall in trouble, and in Kentucky giving Republican Mitch McConnell the edge among women by a single point—hinted at a surprising development: that the gender gap, traditionally favoring Democrats, might be flipping in favor of the Republicans.

Had the “security moms” come back? They were the women voters who turned to the GOP in the past when things got unsettled internationally. There were also “NASCAR moms” and “soccer moms,” other designations that tended to favor Republicans, as do married women today.

It’s single women that Democrats count on to provide a winning margin, and between Ebola and ISIS, and another school shooting to jangle their nerves, women could be searching for a safer harbor. Republicans speculated that women are tired of the Democrats’ relentless focus on reproductive choice and health. Some Republicans, most notably Cory Gardner in Colorado, have been able to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage on those issues by presenting a more moderate image.

Gardner says he will vote against a personhood amendment on the Colorado ballot even though he is a co-sponsor of a virtually identical “Life Begins at Conception” bill in Congress. He says he made a mistake in twice before supporting the state ballot measure, which like its federal counterpart bans abortion in all instances together with some forms of contraception. It failed in 2008 and 2012.

Refuting critics who say he is anti-contraception, Gardner is calling for over-the-counter sale of birth control pills. His change of position has been widely mocked, including on Stephen Colbert’s show, when the faux-conservative comedian did a magic trick to make the federal personhood bill go away. But Gardner’s strategy has worked in Colorado, where the race is about turnout, and not persuasion, says Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

“A pool of women are not being motivated to vote because Republicans have done such a successful job neutralizing fears that Cory Gardner is hostile to women’s reproductive rights,” says Hanson.

Campaigning for a second term, Udall made a strategic choice to mobilize voters by focusing heavily on women’s health and reproductive issues, which cost him the endorsement of The Denver Post for being a one-issue candidate, and brought him derision from Republicans who call him “Senator Uterus.” Countering the critics, Udall was up with a new 30-second ad on Friday highlighting his support for a range of women’s economic issues and saying his campaign is “not just about respecting women’s fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Democrats are fighting to hold the Senate in an environment where there’s a loss of faith that politicians can accomplish anything in the dysfunctional Congress. “Women are not shifting to Republicans, they’re just not engaged,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In the last election, Republican candidates said such inflammatory things about rape and pregnancy and contraception “that they motivated independent women to come out against them,” says Walsh. “This time they’re not saying outrageous things, and Democrats aren’t giving enough of a motivating message. Single women, women of color, there is nothing in this race so far that has engaged and inspired them to come out.”

Colorado votes by mail for the first time this November, and it will be a test case of whether Democrats can compensate for their loss of message momentum with a superior turnout operation. It is an article of faith among Democrats that Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s surprise win in 2010, when Real Clear Politics had only given him a 30 percent chance, is a model that is being replicated for Udall. Chris Harris, the Udall campaign communications director, says they’ve got 4,000 volunteers knocking on doors, urging people to fill out their voter cards, four times the number for Bennet in 2010.

The gender gap has been a factor in American politics since 1980, when women initially were wary of Ronald Reagan’s cowboy swagger and his opposition to abortion rights, which the GOP platform of 1976 had tolerated, and voted noticeably different than men. Since then, it has served to elect Democrats who can only win if they roll up big margins among women.

But if Democrats think women will save the Senate on November 4, they had best think again. In races as close as Colorado and Kentucky, and several others, there is the chance for Republicans—even if they’re losing women overall—with a tweak here, a tweak there, to make inroads. And for races that are polling within the margin of error, it doesn’t take much. “Even a gentle breeze,” says Emily’s List Communications Director Jess McIntosh.

McConnell’s newest ad assails Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes for suggesting at women aren’t strong enough on their own, that they need government, with women offering testimonials on his behalf.  “If he wasn’t worried about the gender gap, he would be talking about lower taxes and the deficit in the final days,” says McIntosh. “If he goes down it will be because women voted him out of office.”

Two polls, one sponsored by USA Today, the other by Public Policy Polling, showed no gender gap in Kentucky. While surprising, it’s not unwelcome, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake: “Part of the upside of not having a gender gap is you’re doing well with men, which is the harder vote to get.” Looked at another way, says Walsh with the Center for Women and Politics, McConnell “may be winning women, but women are still less likely than men to back him. That’s the gender gap.” And polling aside, nobody expects that to change, least of all in Kentucky.