Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, and David Perdue, the GOP nominee for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat, are locked in tight races. If they lose, women will have played decisive and outsized roles in their defeats. Walker is facing a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke, and trails by 4 points according to the latest polls. In the Peach State, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, appears to have scratched out a tentative lead.
It’s not that Burke and Nunn are across-the-board favorites; far from it. Rather, both candidates have built up double-digit margins among distaff voters, and in the case of Walker, he has also managed to engender more than just a modicum of disdain. According to a WeAskAmerica poll released last week, Walker is suffering from a 15-point deficit among women, while holding only a 6-point edge among men. An earlier Marquette Law School poll showed a tighter race, but with Burke again easily beating Walker by 18 points among women. To put things into perspective, Barack Obama won the women’s vote in 2012 by 11 percent.
The Georgia senate race is closer, but the numbers tell a similar story of the Republican nominee having a difficult time overcoming the gender gap. Perdue, who is ahead by almost 7 points with men, is down by nearly 13 with the opposite sex. Sadly for the Republicans, these results bear out the findings of a report entitled “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities,” which concluded that women regard the Republican Party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion,” and “stuck in the past.”
The report, conducted at the behest of Republican-leaning advocacy organizations Crossroads GPS and American Action Network and handed to Politico, painted a picture of a particular lack of enthusiasm for Republicans among single women and among women in the Midwest and in Northeast. It also showed a near majority of females view the GOP unfavorably.
Over at Bloomberg View, Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review senior editor, attempted to trivialize the problem for the GOP by blaming the messenger instead of the poll’s message. Ponnuru asked, “Did we really need an exclusive ... to find out that women in the Northeast are not especially fond of Republicans?”
Actually, the GOP did. While the Northeast is essentially a lost cause for Republican presidential aspirants, it is home to two Republican senators, pro-choice Susan Collins of Maine, and pro-life Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte and Collins also happen to be the only Republican senators from New England, with the region hosting one of the surprises of this election cycle—the fight for New Hampshire’s other Senate seat.
There, Republican Scott Brown has mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to first-term incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. Brown lags Shaheen by just a couple of points, but his lack of traction among women voters is a hurdle Brown needs to overcome to pull off an Election Day upset.
Ponnuru correctly calls for a middle-class agenda to reach out to women, but he attempts to glibly gloss over the cultural fault lines that shape our politics. These days, evangelical voters are a majority in GOP presidential primaries. At the same time, single women now rival evangelicals as a proportion of the electorate. Suffice it to say, the two groups don’t see things eye-to-eye.
With evangelicals shaping the GOP’s cultural message, outreach specifically directed to single women will be a challenge. So what’s the Republican Party to do?
First, avoid selecting candidates who aren’t ready for prime time, and couldn’t pass the SMU Mom Sanity Test; that is, would they make someone like Southern Methodist University alumna Laura Bush cringe, a Texan whose first priorities are her family and reality, as opposed to ideology? Conservative and pro-life is one thing, but living in another century is a whole other story.
Candidates like Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Richard “rape is God’s will” Mourdock, and Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell have no business being near a microphone, a camera, or on a ticket. It’s tough to claim that you care about women when the messenger and message are offensive and grating.
Next, recruit women to run for statewide office. In Iowa, Republican state representative Joni Ernst has a real shot of capturing the seat being vacated by five-term Senate veteran Tom Harkin. Ernst is actually narrowly preferred by men, and her opponent Bruce Braley holds a narrow lead among women. But Braley lashed into Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” proving that foot-in-mouth disease is not the province of any one political party.
Then there’s West Virginia, where Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is the odds-on favorite to win the open seat being vacated by Democrat Jay Rockefeller. Like Michelle Nunn, Capito’s father held statewide office—governor.
But gender solely for its own sake and without vetting is a whole other story. Take Oregon GOP Senate candidate Monica Wehby. According to a Portland police report, Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, was accused by a former boyfriend of “stalking,” entering his home without his permission and “harassing” his employees. In April, Wehby was the front-runner; now, she is trailing badly and Oregon is safely in the D column.
1988 was the last time that a Republican presidential candidate ran first with female voters. Since then, GOP nominees have won the popular vote only once. Wooing women is no longer a luxury for the GOP; it’s a matter of necessity and survival.