Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters 

Colorado Democrats and Republicans are testing theories for reaching women that will resonate far beyond the Rocky Mountains.  

Sen. Mark Udall speaks following a procedural vote on July 16, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

DENVER—The Colorado referendum on women is just 47 days away. That’s not its official title. Most people here refer to it as the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Cory Gardner. But the campaigns’ intense and protracted focus on women’s reproductive issues makes it seem like those issues are up for their own special vote.

Like all competitive Senate races, the neck-and-neck contest in Colorado may determine which party controls the Senate, but the race is also the central battleground for the fight between Republicans and Democrats over female voters. Will Democrats win by returning to the tested playbook of focusing on reproductive issues to run up their support with women, or have Republicans found a way to blunt that attack? The outcome will render a verdict on the principal strategic gambit of the Democratic Party, and it will contribute to a running debate within Republican ranks. Can the GOP win in competitive states—and even a national presidential contest—with its current positions, or must its candidates do more than offer cosmetic changes to core beliefs?

In two days this week, three new ads were launched in this Colorado race. In one, Udall spoke directly to the camera, saying his opponent is “promoting harsh anti-abortion laws and a bill to outlaw birth control.” The Democratic outside group NextGen Climate ran an apocalyptic ad in which it claimed Gardner’s position on contraception meant “he’d like to make your most private choices for you.” The pro-Republican group Crossroads GPS put up its own ad in which four women standing around a kitchen island bemoan that Udall wasn’t talking about issues that matter.

These ads are only the most recent volleys over a set of issues that have dominated the campaign since April. Two of Udall’s first three ads hammered Gardner on his conservative position on abortion and past support for the state’s “personhood” initiatives, which would grant a fetus rights and protections that apply to people. National Democratic organizations have been hammering these issues too, as has Planned Parenthood. “There’s been so much advertising touching on so-called ‘women’s issues’ in this race that it’s noticeable when a Democratic ad doesn’t mention them,” says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, which tracks campaign and issue advertising.

Democrats need women to turn out to vote in all of their toughest races, including Colorado. (Women are so important in the contested states that in my notes from interviewing one top Democratic strategist who described the key factors in each of those races, I scribbled the Venus symbol next to seven of them.) The challenge is to get women to turn out in a nonpresidential year. In 2010, 22 million fewer unmarried women voted than in 2008, according to a study by the Voter Participation Center and Lake Research Partners. Among married women, the drop-off was 10 million.

Democrats have a problem with male voters too, but the solution to that problem is harder to find. There isn’t a set of defined issues that appeal to men as personally as reproductive issues do to women, and there aren’t organizations like Planned Parenthood working for men. “It’s the easiest, black-white issue on which you have a clear contrast that is so important to a key constituency,” says Ted Trimpa, a Democratic strategist.

The Democratic Party’s strategy is modeled after the one Sen. Michael Bennet used in Colorado in 2010. Like this year, the national climate was bad for Democrats, and Bennet did not have Udall’s deep ties to the state or the political pedigree, but he won because he beat his opponent, Ken Buck, among women by 17 points. Still, Bennet only won the race by 30,000 votes. A similar version of this strategy was also used in the Virginia governor’s race, which helped Democrat Terry McAuliffe win all female voters by nine points and unmarried women by a staggering 67–25. The questions for this race, and all Democratic races, are how far can a women-focused strategy get you with female voters, and how much must be handed to you by an inept opponent who offends them.

In 2010 when Buck said homosexuality was like alcoholism and that people should vote for him because he doesn’t wear high heels, he embraced, in real time, the caricature Democrats had painted of him. He showed voters that he was out of the mainstream and boosted Bennet’s prospects at the same time.

Gardner is no Buck. Even Democrats think he is a good candidate. “He’s not going to make a gaffe,” says Trimpa, who has watched Gardner since he was in the state legislature. Another Democrat working to re-elect Udall described Gardner as “the kind of candidate who lights up a room.” In the Republican Party debate after the GOP losses of 2012, some said that candidates needed to moderate their positions. Others, like Gardner, said candidates should not water down their principles but simply communicate better. GOP strategists think Gardner is the prototype of the rock-solid conservative who can connect.

Gardner’s challenge is his voting record. His biggest problem on contraception relates to his support of the “personhood” initiative. It does not seek to ban forms of contraception, as Udall claims in his ad, but it opens the door to limiting birth control products that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Twice voters in Colorado defeated ballot initiatives that Gardner was closely associated with when he was a state lawmaker. He has since announced that he was wrong to do so, a change he said was based on learning that the measures restrict some forms of birth control. Democrats have kept up their attacks, saying election season conversions can’t obscure a long record. Gardner also continues to support a federal personhood bill, which contains similar language that would make a ban of some forms of contraception a possibility. The contraception issue is particularly powerful, worry some Republicans, because as one GOP strategist put it, “If you’re against contraception, it means that you’re weird.”

Gardner hasn’t just altered his position on personhood at the state level—he’s putting forward his own policies on birth control, promoting a program where birth control would be available over the counter and even running an ad on the issue. For Republicans, the race represents the prototype for how to reduce a GOP candidate’s vulnerability with female voters. “Gardner knew this was coming, and they set up a whole strategy,” say one GOP strategist working on the Senate races. “We’ve really retooled our message to women. You have to address the reproductive rights issues. You can’t sit there and say, ‘Well, let me tell you how I’m going to give you a better job,’—but then you do what Gardner did by offering over-the-counter, which was brilliant. And all of a sudden, you just completely kind of inoculated yourself. The far left is never going to vote for him anyway, but for the women who are open and asking, ‘Is this guy really crazy enough to take all of our birth control away?’ No, he’s not. He’s making it over-the-counter. OK, we’re done. Now let’s move on.” In North Carolina, Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis is following the same playbook.

Traditionally, when you’re fighting on the other guy’s turf, you’re losing. Under that theory, Gardner is making a mistake by joining the fight over birth control. He should rebut the charge, but then move on to his issues, including attacking Udall for his record. It’s a variation on the idea of issue ownership: Whomever’s issues are being debated is winning the argument, regardless of the outcome of a specific debate on that issue. “Please, please, let’s a have a debate about lady parts,” says one of the Democratic activists working on the Senate race, responding to Gardner’s ad. Extended conversation exposes more voters to the issue, and since they tend to trust Democrats on that question, it becomes an advertisement for the Democrat.

For the Gardner campaign, every debate over Gardner’s plan for contraception reinforces the idea that he has a plan for contraception and isn’t some extremist who wants to ban it. Planned Parenthood has attacked the congressman’s plan for over-the-counter contraception, saying it would not cover all methods of birth control and would force women to pay up to $600 a year that is now covered by insurance companies. But in order for them to make that rebuttal, they have to repeat the fact that Gardner has a contraception plan. He’s no longer out of the mainstream—he just has a different point of view.

The ad by Crossroads GPS also tests a corollary to the idea of issue ownership. Keeping the debate on your turf gives you the chance to bait your opponent into a stumble because he, by definition, isn’t as versed on the topic and can trip all kinds of landmines, or overreach as he tries too hard. In the ad, which is the start of a $6 million campaign, the four women stand around a kitchen island lamenting that Mark Udall won’t talk about the issues. “After 15 years in Washington, all Mark Udall has left are political scare tactics,” says one. Says another: “We’re not single-issue voters.” They note that Udall votes with President Obama 99 percent of the time.

The ad touched off a debate over which side was patronizing women. Democrats said that by showing women collected in the kitchen it suggested that was their natural habitat. They also said the ad suggested that women who cared about reproductive rights didn’t care about the economy or were narrow-minded single-issue voters. “You don’t tell women voters what they should and shouldn’t care about,” said Craig Hughes, a former strategist for the Bennet campaign, referring to the ad’s line that women want to “have a discussion about things that matter.” What started as a debate about birth control can quickly become a debate about how you address female voters and their opinions.

Katie Packer Gage, who served as deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012 and heads a firm aimed at helping Republicans woo female voters, says it’s the underlying Democratic strategy that is patronizing. “Democrats act as though the only issues that matter are those affecting women’s reproductive organs. Women care about this president’s mismanagement of foreign policy and Obamacare and jobs.”

Republicans don’t have to persuade every woman to back Gardner. They only need to shrink Udall’s margin. Democrats, on the other hand, say their strategy is powerful because while it’s true that abortion, personhood, and birth control aren’t a priority for most female voters, they are issues where a candidate’s position can disqualify him from further consideration. If a candidate believes one thing about contraception, so the thinking goes, he’s likely to do the conservative extreme thing on the other issues I care about. “These aren’t niche issues,” says Hughes. “They touch on a broad set of values. If you’re extreme on this, you are extreme on other things. Voters can walk that path.” That’s the explicit message of the NextGen Climate ad, which is supposed to be about Gardner’s views on environmental issues, but starts by talking about his position on contraception.

Colorado is one of the best examples of a state that reflects the political forces alive in America. Democrats, including President Obama, have succeeded by attracting younger voters, culturally more liberal voters, minorities, and college-educated women. Republicans in the state have tapped the energy of cultural conservatives and mostly white voters in rural areas, including many Tea Party activists. After the 2012 election losses for Republicans, Gardner balked at the idea of watering down his views; he would simply communicate with greater precision. Now to win in Colorado he has followed both paths, moderating his position on the hot-button issue of personhood and running a disciplined campaign as a conservative. Democrats haven’t moderated anything, running a voter turnout strategy that was successful here four years ago with even greater gusto. Whoever wins this referendum will carve a route that will be repeated far beyond the Rocky Mountains.