The XX Factor

How Do Female Republican Strategists Plan to Reach Women Voters? We Asked Them.

Presumably, Burning Glass would like more images like this one, of women supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Democrats call the modern Republican platform a “War on Women”—and women have tended to agree. In 2012, Barack Obama won reelection with the help of an 11-point lead among women. In this month’s close gubernatorial race in Virginia, a 9-point advantage with women boosted Terry McAuliffe over Ken Cuccinelli. Now, some Republican women are fighting back.

Enter Burning Glass Consulting, a team of three female Republican strategists who hope to turn more women voters red by revolutionizing their party’s messaging. Burning Glasses’ founders are two vets of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—Katie Packer Gage and Ashley O’Connor—and Christine Matthews, president of the polling firm Bellwether Research and a two-time campaign advisor to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. After they were featured in a recent New York Times profile, I talked with Packer Gage and Matthews about their own stances on reproductive rights, how the men in their party view their work, and the Ken Cuccinelli problem. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

Slate: What’s the Burning Glass origin story?

Katie Packer Gage: Following the election last year, the three of us got to talking about the need to more effectively communicate what it is that the Republican Party really stands for, in a way that would be received by women—so more women would vote for us! For a variety of reasons, the Republican message was being co-opted. Candidates were articulating positions that were badly worded and, in some cases, too extreme. We felt that it wasn’t representative of our party. The Democrats had become very good at flooding the zone with, often, misinformation about the Republican position on a woman’s reproductive rights, but we knew there was a lot to be positive about within the Republican Party, and that most women weren’t hearing that message. Changing that required a laser focus. That’s why we named it Burning Glass—we want to focus the sun’s rays on this very specific area in order to ignite a flame.

Slate: Women represent a specific focus, but they also constitute a huge group of people. Some of those people are voting Republican already. What groups of women are you hoping to target more specifically?

Christine Matthews: One of our key objectives is to not view women as a monolithic group. That’s like saying, “What do men care about?” Women care about a lot of different things.  Women vote very differently based on the subgroup you look at—traditionally, Republican candidates do well with white, married women. They do less well with unmarried women—that’s an understatement—and with non-white women. We also have challenges reaching younger women and college-educated women, who tend to swing back and forth. Our goal is to really focus on these various subgroups of women, to really hone in and dig into their diverse interests and situations, and find how we can talk to them and hear them better. That’s a really important distinction—we’re not just trying to message to them. We’re also here to listen to them, and the research we hope to do with these women will be much more comprehensive and have a longer-term engagement than what we’ve seen before.

Slate: I’m a member of one group you’re talking about—I’m a single, college-educated young woman. I’m also pro-choice. Are you trying to reach women like me?

Matthews: I am. Some of our partners aren’t on the same place on that issue, but at this point, we’re interested in talking to everybody. One of the challenges we’re facing is that the dialog has been solely defined on that one issue. Yes, if you’re a single-issue voter, it might be more difficult for us to reach you. But there are women who hold that position and are willing to vote for candidates with whom they don’t fully agree, but who speak to them on many other issues.

Slate: When you talk about the messaging among Republican candidates that tends to alienate unmarried women, are you talking specifically about reproductive issues?

Packer Gage: I think there are a variety of areas where our candidates have stumbled. Part of it is very much tonal. 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. It might be helpful to have a woman in the room to say, “Ehhhh, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.” A lot of our guys freeze up in talking about abortion because they’re so terrified of the issue. They don’t really know how to convey what they mean in a way that doesn’t sound so offensive to some women. But if you look at a Republican like Chris Christie, who is certainly pro-life, he’s able to articulate his position and say, “Look, unless this is the only issue you care about, there are places we can find common ground.” We can definitely do that more effectively.

Slate: What’s the distinction between a candidate’s messaging and his or her platform? I imagine that some women find the tone of these campaigns offensive, but others just find the legislative position offensive. Will your work focus just on the way candidates talk about things, or will it also address the issues they prioritize?

Packer Gage: There are certainly some issues we would suggest our party focus more on to reach out to women. There’s plenty more we can do on the issue of education. We’re losing a lot of women that should be voting Republican because we have education platforms that would be very attractive to them—like single moms living in the city, who might be minorities, who would be very drawn to the school choice and freedom of education policies the Republican Party espouses. These women want to reject the status quo of failing inner city schools held hostage by the teacher’s unions, and try to get a better education for their kids. Democrats have not stood up for these women. Getting that message across will require more attention from our party and our candidates, who may or may not prioritize that in their platforms today.

Matthews: Some of our most successful Republican leaders are our governors and mayors in the executive branches. Many of them have approval ratings that are really quite high, and they’re focusing on jobs, management, and education. The places where we see Republicans overstep into the personal lives of individuals is in the state legislatures and to some extent, in Congress, where those issues get a lot of coverage and a lot of exposure. But that’s not happening at all levels, among all Republican officeholders. I think in many cases we should really shift our focus in these state legislatures. Is it really the most important thing to get involved with people’s personal issues in terms of reproductive issues or health? I don’t think so. But I also don’t think that’s the norm.

Slate: The New York Times piece mentioned the recent Virginia governor’s race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli as an example of where your firm might be needed in the future. Cuccinelli’s image has been overwhelmed by his conservative messaging on reproductive and sexual issues not just in this election, but throughout his career. At the point that he becomes the nominee, how can you help someone like him change course on that messaging?

Matthews: Oh, God.

Packer Gage: Certainly, there are some imperfect vessels. I’m a pro-life woman—I don’t necessarily share that view with all the women in my party or in my firm—but I look at Ken Cuccinelli and see that, from the beginning of his career, he spent way too much time focusing on this issue. Women are looking for candidates to address many issues that don’t have anything to do with our reproductive systems. We need candidates who are more three-dimensional than that. But I also think it’s fair to say the Democrats plan to paint all of our candidates with a very broad brush. They staged a virtually identical attack against Mitt Romney as they did against Ken Cuccinelli. To an unbiased outsider, I don’t think Romney looked very conservative on social issues in the Republican primary. The Democrats still painted him as someone who was going to ban abortion, ban contraception, and try to own women’s uteruses. I think the Democrats recognize an opportunity to paint Republicans as a bunch of cavemen before the candidates get a chance to define themselves. Some candidates have taken positions so extreme in their rhetoric there’s no team of consultants that can help them. But it’s fair to say that most of the leaders in our party don’t fall into that category.

Matthews: I am no fan of Ken Cuccinelli. Katie knows this. My partners know this. His problems are his problems. It’s not like we’re out here to do PR for the whole Republican Party. We’re here to bring on clients with whom we can do the best work. I think Cuccinelli lost in part because of his extremism, and also because he came across as mean.

Packer Gage: Which is also a problem for women.

Matthews: Bob McDonnell won Virginia women by 8 percentage points. He was strongly pro-life, but he was not out to make that his number one issue, or to be mean and judgmental about it. It’s an issue of tone and priority. I’m a Northern Virginia woman, and I spoke to many women like me who said, “I just cannot take Ken Cuccinelli. I can’t.” But there’s a big distinction between Ken Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell. On paper, you may see few issue distinctions, but you get the sense that a Bob McDonnell will listen, that he doesn’t have a hateful heart, and that he’s not out to get people. You don’t get that sense from Ken Cuccinelli.

Packer Gage: Women are more than just a collection of reproductive organs. I do feel a little insulted in the way the Democrats want to flood the zone and only talk to us about reproductive rights. And frankly, if I were the Democratic Party—dealing with record levels of women unemployed, women choosing to leave the workforce altogether because they can’t find jobs, and record levels of women in poverty—I’d talk about reproductive rights, too. If I were Barack Obama—a candidate who made all of these grandiose promises—I wouldn’t want to be talking about the failure of Obamacare, either.

Matthews: I live in Northern Virginia, so I was a target of not only the Obama and Romney 2012 mailings, but also mailings about the Virginia governor’s race. The only mail I ever got from the Democrats was the “War on Women” mail, saying that Romney or Cuccinelli were going to close Planned Parenthood and take away your right to choose. I’m pro-choice, but I’m not a single-issue voter. It was a cynical piece of mail and message to send to me. But the Cuccinelli campaign’s response? It was a letter from his wife saying, “I’m Ken Cuccinelli’s wife, and you should support him,” with this big picture of his whole family that reminded me of the Duggar family. And that was wholly inadequate, too.

Slate: How important is it for the Republican Party to promote more female candidates?

Packer Gage: I think it’s absolutely critical. I don’t know if it will become a primary focus of Burning Glass, but it’s something that the three of us have all discussed and feel is important. I’ve been pleased to see [Republican groups] really pushing hard with initiatives to recruit women to run for office. Our overall mission is to help reshape how the Republican Party is viewed by women, and having different faces that women can relate to is really critical to that overall goal.

Slate: What’s the response to your work so far within the party?

Matthews: We have gotten so much feedback from women. They’ve called us, come up to us, and emailed us about their incredible enthusiasm and support for what we’re doing. They see the need. These women are friends, consultants, professionals—average women all across the country—which is really gratifying. Within the powers that be, in general, the response has been highly favorable.

Slate: In the first part of that answer, you’re talking about women. I assume in the second part you’re referring to men. How receptive have they been?

Packer Gage: There are a lot of people opening doors to hear what we have to say. The challenge we’ve had with many men is they tend to view the problem very linearly. They want to focus in on the specific issue or specific tactic they need to focus on to reach women. There’s a little bit of disconnect on the overall concept. Ours is a different kind of approach—it’s more than just one issue, more than one tactic. We’re really suggesting a wholesale change in the way we communicate our messages to women, down to the tone and the imagery.

Matthews: In some ways, this is very second nature to us. It’s not a stretch for us to imagine what different women think or feel—we talk to them. We’re in touch with them. We’re normal women, and we’re our own target audience. I’ve read some critiques of our firm saying that we’re “Stepford Wives,” or questioning our motivations for doing this. The reality is that we’re very normal people with a diverse set of views. I hope that they will hear what we have to say, and not caricature us.