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GOP tries to deal with damage done with women

By Deirdre Walsh and Dana Bash, CNN
updated 12:23 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House Speaker John Boehner said Republican candidates need to be more "sensitive"
  • The GOP is training the male-dominated House caucus how to speak to women voters
  • The campaign arm of the House Republicans are also trying to recruit more female candidates
  • "It's time," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee said.

Washington (CNN) -- House Republicans recognize they have a problem with women.

"Some of our members just aren't as sensitive as they ought to be." House Speaker John Boehner said bluntly when asked about recent efforts by the House GOP campaign arm to improve how male candidates appeal to female voters.

Boehner didn't name names, but much of the damage with female voters is self-inflicted, and stems from some high-profile gaffes from GOP Senate candidates in 2012.

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Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin referred to "legitimate rape" and Richard Mourdock in Indiana suggested rape was "something God intended to happen." Both red-state candidates were favored to win but lost badly.

In the presidential race, the already noticeable gender gap between women supporting Democratic candidates over Republicans widened; women preferred President Barack Obama over challenger Mitt Romney by 11 percentage points.

Mindful of the damage done, the National Republican Congressional Committee is teaching male candidates who are running against female challengers or incumbents how to respond to specific questions about rape. The effort is part of the NRCC's overall media training it conducts each cycle.

A senior House Republican strategist familiar with the training told CNN this is just one aspect of helping candidates effectively talk to voters. But after the Akin and Mourdock missteps, this Republican said GOP candidates must be prepared to answer questions about sensitive subjects like rape.

"First and foremost what we tell them to do (is) talk about yourself as a husband and a father," this source told CNN, adding, "After that we urge a blanket statement about rape is abhorrent: 'Anyone who is charged with this offense should be fully prosecuted, and as a husband and father I am outraged.'"

Boehner also pointed to the obvious issue facing his party: There are a lot more female Democratic House members than Republicans. Only 19 of the 232 House GOP members are women.

Earlier this year the House GOP campaign arm launched Project GROW to recruit more female candidates and improve how the party frames issues to female voters. The GOP strategist familiar with the effort said it's not just about avoiding mistakes and improving messaging -- the party also is playing offense. Republicans believe Obamacare gives them the chance to win over women by talking about the premiums their families will pay or the so-called "marriage penalty" they believe will hit many people's pocketbooks.

The party also encourages GOP members to humanize themselves and stress the impact that fiscal issues have on their own families.

In an interview with CNN's Dana Bash on Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried to link the GOP's focus on reining in the deficit to his daughter, who is in college.

"She's off now thinking about her next step in life, what kind of career or job opportunities are available for her," he said. "Well, I don't believe that racking up trillions of dollars of additional deficit and debt are a good thing for her because, ultimately, what that does is it mortgages her future."

The NRCC effort is more than messaging -- the party is urging candidates to create and sustain efforts to reach out to women, regardless of whether or not they are facing female challengers. Strategists are suggesting building coalitions of female supporters and regularly attending events such as PTA meetings.

As for the advice he would give to his colleagues who are facing off against female candidates next fall, Boehner said, "Well, I'm trying to get them to be a little bit more sensitive."

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who frequently touts the diversity of the Democratic caucus, quipped that Republicans have "made an art of running against women in ways that we think are inappropriate." But she added, "It would be interesting to see what they have in their curriculum."

Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham, a close ally of Boehner, is in a competitive race with Democrat Staci Appel, a former state senator. He doesn't think there are major differences on which issues men and women care about, but said it's a matter of emphasis.

"I think there are maybe some priority differences in issues that women are very concerned about -- available time, they are very concerned about budgets, because they run the place. The cost and access to health care is a big issue to them," Latham said.

But when asked if he thinks there's any continued fallout for GOP members a year after Akin's comments, Latham paused deliberately and then said, "It's extremely unfortunate what some people will say that may reflect badly on other people who don't share those views."

Tennessee GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn said she's given her Republican male colleagues "gentle guidance" for some time on the need to address issues that are important to women and to show how their legislative agenda will make their lives easier. Although she says the effort is overdue, Blackburn is heartened that her party is dealing with the issue head-on now.

"There is an aggressiveness that has not been in there forever," she told CNN. "We've never been this aggressive and I'm glad and I think it's time. We all should be a bit more aware in how we choose our words."

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