10 Races That May Hinge on “The War on Women”

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 A woman votes at Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Five major GOP candidates will square off to represent their party this fall in the election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Meanwhile, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn is a heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson)

A woman votes at Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson)

As a coherent and consistent political narrative, “the war on women” is relatively new. But the underlying tension between conservative religious beliefs and women’s access to reproductive health care — including legal abortion without overly burdensome regulation and insurance coverage for contraceptives — is not.

Nor is the gender-gap in American politics. In 2012, Barack Obama took advantage of a record 20-point gap between men and women, but similar gaps have been been apparent since the rise of the religious right as a force in American politics, as this chart by Nate Silver illustrates:

In 2012, Barack Obama lost by 8 points among men and won by 12 points among women, for a 20-point gender-gap.

The Democratic advantage is most pronounced among younger, unmarried women. Courting this voting bloc is a key strategy for Democratic candidates because, as The Washington Post noted in April, “Women make up a larger percentage of the electorate than men, [and] are disproportionately likely to go to the polls in midterm election years.”

Getting these voters to the polls will be crucially important for Democrats in this year’s midterms, as their party faces strong headwinds going into November’s election.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 races where “the war on women” narrative may play a decisive role.

North Carolina Senate

US Sen. Kay Hagan (D) holds a three-point advantage over her challenger Thom Tillis, Speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives, which has become one of the most right-wing legislatures in the country. But that modest lead is driven by Hagan breaking even with Tillis among men, while enjoying a significant advantage among women — two polls released in late June had her up with female voters by margins of 10- and 13-points.

Hagan’s strategy has been to motivate her voters by tying Tillis to the extremism of the state’s legislature. A typical mailer, sent out by her campaign last week, reads in part:

Less than 24 hours.

That’s how long it took the North Carolina Senate to sneak sweeping anti-women’s health measures into a totally unrelated bill and then force a vote on it.

The legislation will limit access to preventive care and health services, and it does nothing to improve patient safety….

Join me in demanding that North Carolina lawmakers do the right thing, and stop this war on women.

Thanks for standing with me, as well as with women and families all across North Carolina.

Michigan Senate

This is an interesting race that pits a Republican woman, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, against Democrat Rep. Gary Peters in the fight for Michigan’s open senate seat. Incumbent US Senator Carl Levin is retiring.

Land came out of the gate in April with a TV ad that won high praise for it’s originality. Titled “Really?,” the ad mocks the idea that she could be waging a “war on women.”

Land is a proponent of “fetal personhood” legislation which could effectively ban abortion, as well as some forms of contraception and infertility treatments. Despite the success of the ad — and a significant fundraising advantage — Land trails Peters by 5.2 points in Real Clear Politics’ polling average, and according to the most recent Washington Post poll, “Peters beats Land among women by 13 points, 46 to 33.”

Louisiana Senate

Long considered one of the more vulnerable Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu will face off in November against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), who is very conservative on social issues and opposes abortion, even in instances of rape or incest.

In heavily Catholic Louisiana, which has seen a series of new restrictions on abortion in recent years, Landrieu’s campaign has been reticent to engage in “the war on women” rhetoric. Throwing another twist in the narrative, Cassidy won praise for his compassion dealing with his unmarried 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, which the media reported earlier this month. This race may well hinge on Obamacare if Landrieu remains wary of bringing up the issue of women’s health.

Cassidy enjoys a slim, one-point advantage in Real Clear Politics’ polling average.

Iowa Senate

In the race for retiring US Senator Tom Harkin’s seat, Rep. Bruce Braley (D) was trailing Republican State Senator Joni Ernst by less than a point after a series of unforced errors, including an ad portraying Ernst, a veteran who served in the Middle East, as a “chick” — a baby chicken — that many found sexist.

But according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted two weeks later (which had Braley up by 4), the Democrat continued to enjoy a double-digit lead over Ernst among women.

Ernst has a strong anti-abortion record. In endorsing Ernst,  National Right to Life President Carol Tobias said, “Joni Ernst has been an outspoken leader in the fight to protect innocent human life in Iowa” and “will bring her record of strong pro-life leadership to the U.S. Senate.” She favored a “personhood” bill and another banning abortion after 20 weeks that many consider to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. 

Kentucky Senate

In one of the most closely-watched races this cycle, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes trails Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a very red state by just 1.5 points, and has set a record for fundraising in the Bluegrass State.

This race may be Ground Zero for women’s issues. Grimes has all but called McConnell a sexist dinosaur, highlighting an incumbent whose record includes calling equal pay a “bizarre obsession” of the left, and voting repeatedly against fair pay legislation and the Violence Against Women Act.

Georgia Senate 

We won’t know who Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, will face in November until next week’s Republican runoff between Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Purdue, a tea party favorite. But Nunn is considered to be a strong contender to go against the national tide in a red state, and has aggressively courted the women’s vote. It will certainly play in the general election against either Kingston, who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and said poor kids should have to sweep the floors to earn their school lunches, or Purdue, whose company paid $15 million in 2007 to settle a class action suit charging that it routinely discriminated against women.

Colorado Senate

Incumbent Mark Udall (D) holds a slim, one-point lead over Rep. Cory Gardner. Udall’s first campaign ad came out hard against Gardner’s extreme positions on contraception and abortion. Gardner sponsored the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which famously would have redefined rape in federal law.

Outside groups are running similar ads. According to NBC, which found Udall enjoying a significant lead among women, “70% of Colorado voters in the NBC/Marist poll said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supports restrictions on the use of contraception.”

New Hampshire Senate

This is not a terribly close race — Real Clear Politics rates it “leans Dem” — but it’s worth noting because incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s  lead over former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is being driven entirely by the gender-gap (Brown first has to win a Republican primary in September but his victory in that race is considered inevitable).

As he did in Massachusetts, Brown has tried to portray himself as an independent Republican who is moderate on social issues — in 2012 he said he was pro-choice. Shaheen and her surrogates have embraced “the war on women” narrative, and hammered Brown for twice voting against the Paycheck Fairness Act while in the Senate.

According to a Marist poll released on Wednesday, Brown leads Shaheen among men by a nine-point margin (51-42), while Shaheen outpaces Brown among women by 25 percentage points (59-34).

Nevada’s Third District

We’ve focused on Senate races because control of the chamber is up for grabs in November, but there are a couple of House races worth watching as well.

One is Nevada’s 3rd congressional district. The district currently leans toward Republican incumbent Joe Heck, but his Democratic challenger, Erin Bilbray, has relentlessly pounded Heck on women’s health issues — and for campaigning with Cory Gardner (see Colorado Senate above).

Last month, Bilbray released a statement to the press:

Southern Nevadans should know that when it comes to being on the wrong side of women’s health issues, Joe Heck and Cory Gardner are two peas in a pod.

“Congressmen Cory Gardner and Joe Heck both have a history of supporting legislation that could outlaw abortion — even in the case of incest and rape, and common forms of birth control,” said Bilbray Campaign Manager Erica Prosser. “Gardner even co- sponsored legislation to redefine rape. Heck’s hostility towards women’s health care rights won’t go unnoticed – it’s clear he’s too dangerous to continue representing Nevada women in Congress.”

Arizona’s Second District

Another House race to watch is Arizona’s 2nd congressional district, notable not only because it was held by Rep. Gabby Giffords (D), who in 2011 was wounded in an assassination attempt that killed six others, but also because the Democratic incumbent, Ron Barber, has so far kept the race close despite what National Journal described as “an early ad campaign by groups like the LIBRE Initiative and Americans for Prosperity, two nonprofits with ties to the Koch brothers that have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the district.

It’s also a noteworthy race because Barber is up against Republican Martha McSally, who was the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.  It will be interesting to see if a gender gap emerges in this race, despite McSally’s “woman warrior” rhetoric. She is a self-described “devout Christian” who praises the “sanctity of life” on the campaign trail, while Barber is pro-choice, favors fair-pay legislation and has supported extending the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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