After losing women by devastating margins in the 2012 election, Republicans have scrambled for ways to avoid a repeat. Thus far, that strategy involves “re-branding” GOP policies and training candidates to avoid fiascos like former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) “legitimate rape” comments or 2012 Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s (R-IN) argument that pregnancies from rape were “a gift from God.”
The Republican National Committee has spawned several PR groups and political action committees specifically dedicated to recruiting women for office and pitching female voters. But a new analysis from the Center for American Women and Politics suggests that these efforts are floundering. Thus far, 74 Republican women are expected to run for Congressional seats, down from 108 in 2012. Recent polling also shows that most Americans, particularly women, think Republicans are out of touch with women.
Outside the official party efforts to change this perception is Burning Glass Consulting, a private firm started by Republican strategists Katie Packer Gage, Ashley O’Connor, and Christine Matthews — “women who have been operating in what is largely a male environment for 20 years,” Gage told ThinkProgress. The firm works with candidates and committees, conducts public opinion research, and develops campaign ads based on that research. The firm is particularly interested in college-educated suburban women, Gage said, many of whom are becoming disenchanted with the GOP.
To counter negative attention on the GOP’s reproductive rights stances, Republican strategists (and, in one particularly inarticulate case, Mike Huckabee) have leaned on the argument that focusing on legislative goals that restrict abortion and contraception reduces women to their reproductive organs. Gage, a former Romney strategist, certainly invoked this point. “We think it’s an insult. That’s like talking about ‘men’s issues,’” Gage wrote in an email. “Women tell us their top issues are the economy, jobs, health care, spending. When we start buying into the Democrats’ definition that it’s all about reproductive issues, then we are not playing to our strengths.”
When asked if Burning Glass is a feminist enterprise, Gage told ThinkProgress, “Well, we have never described ourselves that way, but the dictionary definition of feminism is ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities and/or an effort in support of women’s interests.’ So by that definition yes.”
The struggle to define Republican feminism is at the heart of the GOP attempt to capture women voters. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) made her pitch to women in her official State of the Union response, representing a feminist image that is “ambitious, urbane, pen in one hand, baby in the other, having it all, all by herself,” as Hanna Rosin described it. This isn’t the first time the GOP has elevated strong female voices in the party; former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), a self-proclaimed “Mama Grizzly” feminist, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) have also enjoyed the party spotlight.
But reproductive rights activists say it’s not enough to simply celebrate strong women if the underlying policies hurt women. “The movement we’ve fought so hard for is suddenly being appropriated by the very people who are trying to dismantle it,” Jessica Valenti wrote in the Nation. Planned Parenthood is launching its largest campaign offensive ever this year in order to hammer home the point that, however female-friendly their tone, women will never be able to trust candidates who support restricting women’s health access and oppose equal pay and paid maternity leave. This message paid off massively in 2012; Planned Parenthood came out of that election cycle the most successful lobbying group, with a 98 percent win rate. If Republicans can’t find a way to address these root issues in a way that sounds authentic to women, they may lose them for good.
Democrats have pushed the “war on women” message hard, and it seems to be working so far. Two Colorado candidates who have touted their hard-line conservative values, Rep. Cory Gardner (R) and Rep. Mike Coffman (R), disavowed a controversial “personhood” amendment after pressure from Democratic opponents. One Virginia congressional candidate even had to drop out of the race after uproar over his suggestion that marital rape should be legal. Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis (D) has spent much of the past few weeks hammering her opponent, Greg Abbott, on his silence over equal pay legislation, which Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) vetoed last year.
All this suggests that the 2014 campaign cycle is shaping up to be a war over women, and the Democrats have plenty of ammunition.
Gage cautioned against simply avoiding these issues in order to avoid attacks. “As a candidate, it is never a good idea to just avoid issues that matter to your constituency. But you can’t give your opponents ammunition by being insensitive or inarticulate,” she said. “And the most important thing is to demonstrate authenticity and also some care and compassion for women when it comes to preventing and confronting unplanned pregnancy.”
That perspective may get lost in a room full of male strategists. As Gage explained to Slate last year, “When we try to reach people who, for example, are living in poverty, or are facing an unwanted pregnancy, some candidates come across like they have no understanding of what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Some of that is male. Some of that is that guys get it wrong, and we think women approach these things in a different way.” Considering how few women are running campaigns for Republican candidates this year, that blind spot may persist.