Texas’ recent efforts to radically curtail women’s health has turned the state into a prime battleground for women’s rights. State Senator Wendy Davis (D) is using that attention to raise millions of dollars for her gubernatorial campaign. As Republicans scramble to avoid a competitive race in a usually deep-red state, a group of conservative activists just launched RedState Women, a political action committee meant to prove “Democrats don’t corner the market on women.” But the PAC’s plan to win over women closely mirrors the failed strategy used by Mitt Romney and Congressional Republicans in the 2012 election: pretend women don’t care about reproductive rights.
The group’s first press release says its goal is “revolutionizing the way the Republican Party communicates with women.” To do this, Cari Christman, the new PAC’s executive director, told Politico, they’ll show that the GOP is not just about abortion rights: “It’s a lot more than that. Women have a wide range of interests. We want to make sure we reach them.”
PAC supporter Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick (R) made the same point to Politico: “I respect Wendy Davis, but the Republican Party is not a one-issue party … for me, being a fiscal conservative, running a household, having to meet a budget, are very important.” Craddick, who accepted a $10,000 contribution in 2012 from notorious rape-defender Clayton Williams Jr., says in the PAC’s first video, “I think women want to vote for women and realize we understand our issues,” because men’s “egos get in the way sometimes.”
Admittedly, RedState Women’s task is ambitious. Republicans all over the country are struggling to dispel their anti-woman image. The GOP is even training candidates how to avoid sexist, offensive language like the infamous “legitimate rape” comments that sank former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) Senate campaign. In Texas, this challenge is even more pronounced. The Republican-dominated state government in Austin has a reputation for being an old boys’ club, in which female lawmakers are regularly demeaned and marginalized. The state legislature’s passage of a bill to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks and impose harsh regulations on abortion providers further alienated women and catapulted Davis to national prominence. Polling showed that most Texans opposed the measure.
Yet instead of address these specific concerns, RedState Women is falling back on a familiar line from the 2012 elections, another time Republicans claimed they were reforming their pitch to female voters.
Facing a significant national gender gap, 24 Republican Congressswoman had launched a GOP Women’s Policy Committee in 2012. Then-Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) explained: “In homes across the country, women work, raise their children, pay the bills, take care of their homes, pay taxes and contribute in countless ways to the well-being of their communities.” November. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) wrote on a conservative blog, “We are mothers and grandmothers who want to eliminate the debt burden for the next generation. We are wives who run the family budgets, fill up the gas tanks, and make our families’ health care decisions. ”
Weeks later, Romney launched a “Women for Mitt” coalition. In the announcement press release, Romney supporter and former The Real World: San Francisco cast-member Rachel Campos-Duffy explained, “As a mother of six, I’m proud to stand with Mitt in his efforts to restore common sense and fiscal responsibility in Washington.” Rep. McMorris Rodgers added that, “Since President Obama can’t run on his record, he’s resorted to scare tactics to distract and divide women – namely, the so-called ‘War on Women,’ which is a total myth.”
The rhetoric did not win over women, who overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in the November 2012 elections. President Obama beat Romney 56 to 44 among women — a record gender-gap, according to Gallup. Women favored Democratic House and Senate candidates nationally by a similar margins.
Despite this failure, the Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy report endorsed a similar strategy for future GOP candidates: “Female voters want to hear the facts; many of them run the economies of their homes and understand economics better than the men in their families. But they are also the caregivers for their families. Women need to hear what our motive is — why it is that we want to create a better future for our families and how our policies will affect the lives of their loved ones.”
Just last month, Katie Packer Gage, a former Romney strategist who is now advising Republican candidates on outreach to women, told the New York Times, “I’m more than just a set of reproductive organs and I’d like someone to talk to me about how they’ll help my pocketbook and keep my health care plan that I like, and Democrats don’t have a good response to that.”
But telling women to simply overlook reproductive rights issues in Texas, where women’s options are shrinking rapidly, isn’t likely to fly. Women in Texas are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than their male counterparts, and polling suggests many are steadily losing interest in the Republican Party. That’s bad news for the GOP, as women also cast the majority of votes, according to Southern Methodist University political science Professor Cal Jillson. While there was no exit polling in the less-than-competitive Lone Star State 2012 election, Obama did noticeably better among women then men in the 2008 election.
Davis’ opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), may also be a hard sell for RedState Women. Abbott’s record on women’s issues includes comparing Planned Parenthood to a terrorist organization, challenging the Affordable Care Act’s provisions requiring birth control access, refusal to state a position on equal pay legislation, and thanking a supporter on Twitter who called Davis “retard Barbie.” The a recent PPP poll found that while 54 percent of Texas men had a favorable view of Abbott, just 39 percent of women did.