The contours of how Republicans plan to take down Hillary Clinton in 2016 are clear. They will subtly hit her on her age, her long career in the Beltway bubble, and tie her to the scandals and secrecy of her husband’s administration.
But what the GOP hasn’t figured out how to tackle yet is something that may be even more important than Clinton’s record: the fact that if elected, she would at last break that glass ceiling and become the nation’s first female president.
Until this week, both Democrats and Republicans have been approaching the subject warily. For the GOP, anything approaching gender politics is fraught with peril. In 2012, their hopes of retaking the Senate were doomed when candidates on the campaign trail mused aloud about “legitimate rape” and whether children conceived from sexual assault were divinely sent.
For Democrats, the election season to keep in mind has been not 2012 but 2014, when their turbo-charging of rhetoric over the GOP’s “War on Women” led to charges of pandering. One incumbent, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, earned the moniker “Mark Uterus”—a nickname propagated by his own supporters—for his singular focus on women’s reproductive issues.
But no more. This week, just as the uproar over her deleted State Department emails was growing deafening, Clinton took to Twitter to blast Republicans over a sex trafficking bill that included abortion provisions, and for their delays in approving the nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general, calling the moves “the Congressional trifecta against women.” In the last month Clinton, has appeared at a gala for Emily’s List, released a report through the Clinton foundation about women and global leadership, and spoken at a United Nations conference on the status of women and girls worldwide.
In Washington, D.C, meanwhile, Concerned Women for American—a religious counter to the liberal National Organization for Women—convened a number of top Republican female leaders to declare the “war on women” officially over.
“What do most women do every week? Do they fill up the gas tank and the grocery cart?” asked GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway. “Or do they get an abortion?”
Women make up a majority of voters. In 2012, in the wake of a series of Republican efforts to limit reproductive health access and the aforementioned campaign gaffes, Barack Obama racked up an 11-point victory over Mitt Romney, a slightly worse showing for Democrats than they did in 2008. And even with Clinton as the likely nominee, Republican strategists are trying to limit her advantages with female voters.
“The idea is to keep them in the single digits,” said Katie Packer Gage, who served as a top aide to Romney in 2012 and has since started her own consulting shop dedicated to Republican outreach to women. “A gender gap of over 10 points usually means a Democratic win.”
Gage laid out a string of attacks that Republicans were preparing to utilize against Clinton to hurt her standing among women, among them that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from “regimes that don’t even let women drive a car,” that the top levels of her campaign are (or will be, at least) stocked mostly with men and that in office records show that she paid her male staff members more than her female ones.
“The levels of hypocrisy are astounding,” Gage said. “She didn’t speak about these issues at all in 2008 until she was stepping out of the race, she doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to equal pay. Just being a woman isn’t enough.”
Republicans are quick to point out that Clinton can’t coast on her gender—after all, she failed to rally women to her side in 2008 despite facing a Democratic primary electorate that is by some estimations close to 60 percent female.
“I understand the appeal of her gender,” Conway told The Daily Beast. “My eyes are wide open that there may be moderate, independent-leaning women who are motivated by voting for the first women president.”
But, she added, “The question is not will you vote for a woman. The question is would you vote for that woman. Does she have the values and the life experiences so that she connect with the plight of women?”
In 2008, Obama also never mentioned explicitly that his election would be historic; he didn’t need to. Instead, he spoke of the long sweep of American history, subtly suggesting that him in the White House would be yet another landmark toward a more equitable nation.
Republicans on the other hand are quick to accuse Clinton of already playing the gender card.
“This week has already shown that she is running a gender-based campaign,” said Conway. “There is no indication that women appreciate that, and there are many indications that men don’t like that.”
Democrats, meanwhile, say that they don’t much have to bring up Clinton’s gender—they are confident that Republicans will do it for them, more often than not in boneheaded ways that end up driving female voters their way.
Already, Rand Paul has come under criticism for setting up a fake Valentine’s Day Pinterest page for Clinton, with “likes” that included a full-length mirror and a heart-shaped bathtub.
Democrats have built a vast infrastructure around monitoring media for just such kind of GOP outburst, and will be on hair-trigger alert for any statement made on the campaign trail or on cable news that could be construed as sexist toward Clinton. On Thursday, there was already a taste of what the next 20 months could be like when an email that an aide to Rick Perry’s SuperPAC wrote in 2011 in which he questioned whether a female head of state would be in “God’s will” made the rounds on social media.
The aide backtracked from the comments, but Clinton has been such a steady target of boorish commentary by conservative men that many Democrats are already preparing to pounce.
“It’s in their DNA. You know it’s going to happen. I almost feel sorry for them,” said Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser to Ready for Hillary, the SuperPAC laying the groundwork for Clinton’s campaign.
Republicans, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, will find themselves in a few months “competing for a very small percentage of the vote that really dislikes Hillary. And those kind of over-the top comments are more likely to get made and they can be very damaging. It’s exactly that kind of thing that will reignite the ‘War on Women.’”
Republicans largely avoided such controversies in 2014. But the hothouse of a presidential campaign is another matter, and as the last several cycles have shown, such off-message comments have a tendency to drive the news cycle for days and drown out whatever else a candidate is trying to convey.
“Our party has to rise up with one voice and condemn that kind of thing,” Gage said. “We made it all the way through 2014 without any of our candidates saying anything that would give people pause. I think we learned a valuable lesson.”