Win Women, Win the Midterms

The female vote gave the House to Republicans in 2010 and to Democrats in 2006. No wonder we’re talking about pay equality six months before Election Day.

Cengiz Yar Jr./AFP/Getty

You could be forgiven for looking at the 2014 election cycle and thinking you’re watching a rerun of 2012. “The 1 percent! The war on women!” In the latest episode, the White House signed an executive order on federal salaries billed as promoting equal pay, as a part of its effort to keep the political gender gap working in their favor.

It makes sense that Democrats would want the coming election to be a replay of the last one. They won.

The “war on women” was an essential piece of the Democratic Party’s 2012 playbook, and women broke by double-digits for President Obama on Election Day. Republicans were caught off-guard all campaign long and their response was atrocious. From “binders full of women” to the awkward silence in response to Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy, Republicans handed Democrats round after round of ammunition.

It is a mathematic truth that “women decide elections,” as we constitute the majority of voters, even in midterm elections. In the 2006 midterms, women made up 51 percent of the vote, and in 2010 that increased to 53 percent. The election that swept in Speaker Pelosi saw Democrats winning female voters by a 12-point margin, and the election that gave us Speaker Boehner had Republicans outperforming Democrats among women.

For all that Republicans are hoping the midterms are much closer to the 2010 election than 2012, the polls these days do show women have a very different take on the GOP than they did four years ago. While at this point in 2010, there was little difference between who men and women said they wanted to vote for in the midterms, the polls today show women still disinclined to vote Republican.

We know women will be critical on Election Day, and we know what Democrats’ plan is to win them over. Do Republicans have a better response this time?

Maybe. Take the “equal pay” conversation. While, at the macro level, research shows much of the gender gap in pay is attributable to other factors, it comes across as tone-deaf for Republicans to tell women that there’s essentially no such thing as pay discrimination, as if any woman who has felt uneasy about how she is treated at work must just be imagining things or whining. In 2012, the Republican Party’s answer to the question of differing incomes for working men and women involved ignoring it and ceding the argument to Democrats, never really getting around to explaining their opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that didn’t end up shrinking the pay gap at all.

Today, we have some steps in the right direction. Republican women are increasingly out front with their own vision for how best to address the issues facing women in the workplace. Four Republican female senators are proposing legislation to update the decades-old Equal Pay Act to do things like protect employees who voluntarily choose to discuss their salaries and to improve job training programs.

And though Democrats have been attacking rising Senate candidate and Republican Terri Lynn Land of Michigan for suggesting women care more about flexibility in the workplace than pay inequality, the data show Land is right in her assessment of most women’s concerns: research shows that women acknowledge earning power was a top concern a decade ago but flexibility and balance are the top priority today.

Democrats hold an advantage today with female voters that, if maintained, will dampen any potential for a GOP wave in November. And with the Supreme Court expected to hand down its ruling on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate sometime this summer, the “war on women” rerun isn’t even close to over. This time, Republicans know exactly what attack the Democrats are planning, and this time they have no excuse for not putting up a better defense.