Republicans have organized game plans and boot camps in an attempt to battle the “war on women” narrative. But in practice, their strategy has boiled down to one major initiative: ladies to the front. Put some female faces on the conservative agenda—particularly in the parts where equal pay and reproductive rights are being resisted—and hope that the disconnect between policy and politician is enough to stump the voters.
This year, that strategy is being put to the test in the Michigan Senate race between Republican Terri Lynn Land and Democrat Gary Peters. Peters and his supporters have been highlighting Land’s opposition to equal pay legislation and to legal abortion, even in cases of rape. Land has replied with an ad where she scoffs at Peters’ accusation that she’s waging a “war on women,” and sarcastically replies, “Really? Think about that for a moment,” before sipping her coffee quietly to let viewers take a long look at her female face. “As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters,” she concludes, in case some people didn’t get the point.
How’s the strategy working out for Land? Not well, reports Benjy Sarlin of MSNBC. While the race was tight for a while, Peters “now boasts a significant lead in recent polling,” Sarlin writes. “This month an NBC News/Marist poll put him up 43-37 and the most recent survey by EPIC-MRA gave him his biggest lead yet: 45-36.”
Sarlin notes that “Pollsters credited a surge in Peters’ position to a widening gender gap.” As for the commercial, “Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz later said on FOX News that Land’s ad tested worse with focus groups than any other he had seen this election cycle.” Sarlin interviews voters and finds that the messaging about the war on women is hitting close to home, with voters expressing concerns about reproductive rights, equal pay, and fears about gender rating in insurance returning. In retrospect, Land probably shouldn’t have asked voters how it could be possible for a woman to oppose other women, because that just encouraged them to look for the answer.
In fact, running female candidates has never done much to improve Republican performance with female voters. In June, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake “looked at eight marquee Senate races between 2006 and 2012 in which [Republicans] nominated a female candidate,” and found an average 15-point gender gap between male and female voters in these races, which aligns with the gender gap for Republicans overall. Women don’t favor other women so much as they favor Democrats of either gender, a preference that stems mostly from women being less hostile to a social safety net than men are.
The biggest blunder that Republicans have made is they’ve grown bolder about tying traditional “women’s” issues to the social safety net issues that actually move women at the polls. Women are protective of health care access, welfare, and protections for workers. These are three issues that Republicans have made even more gendered by using contraception coverage to attack Obamacare, single mothers to attack welfare, and opposition to equal pay legislation (as well as attacks on contraception coverage in employer-offered health care plans) to undermine worker’s rights. By singling out women for abuse in the attacks on the liberal agenda, Republicans have really bolstered the image that they have something against women. Running a few female candidates isn’t enough to erase that picture.