How the 'war on women' is changing

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Story highlights

  • Democratic rhetoric aimed at women isn't resonating as well as it did in 2012
  • Republicans are avoiding the mistakes they made with women in 2012
  • The GOP is putting up strong female candidates in states like Iowa and Michigan
The so-called war on women that Democrats love to talk about on the campaign trail may be losing some of its luster.
The attack line -- aimed at painting Republicans as out of sync with women on contraception, abortion and other issues -- isn't resonating like in 2012, when Democrats hurled it at the GOP with a devastating effect. Instead, Republicans have improved their standing among women during this election cycle, narrowing the gender gap in key races that could decide control of the Senate.
The dynamic reflects the painstaking efforts among Republicans to avoid the mistakes of 2012. This time around, there aren't any candidates talking about "legitimate rape" or "binders full of women." And the GOP put up strong female candidates in states like Iowa and Michigan, making it harder for Democrats to attack them as opposed to the interests of women.
The strategy seems to be paying off.
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"The gender gap is smaller when Republicans don't make mistakes," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "Republicans this time have managed to neutralize their deficiencies in this area so the war on women rhetoric does not resonate so much."
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said Republicans are riding a "perfect storm" in Senate races in red states as they enjoy the knock-on effect of national factors like Ebola and ISIS, which have overshadowed social issues.
"They have learned their lessons from 2012," she said.
Still, Democrats aren't toning down the rhetoric.
An attack ad by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall warns that the only place his opponent Cory Gardner will take Colorado women is backwards, and accused him of waging an "eight year crusade that would ban birth control." Another Udall spot features a female gynecologist and obstetrician complaining that Gardner sponsored harsh anti-abortion laws.
The barrage has prompted Republicans backing Gardner to brand Udall "Senator Uterus" — a phrase that was even picked up by a moderator in a Colorado Senate debate this month.
Despite the attacks, polls show abortion and contraception are not decisive issues in their tight race — reflecting data that shows the core Democratic constituency of young unmarried women often tune out the mid-terms.
In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, women picked Udall by 45% to 41%. But men back Gardner by 51% to 38% giving the Republican a five point lead in the race overall.
It's a similar story in Arkansas, where the incumbent Mark Pryor is tied or just behind among women with Republican Tom Cotton, but is down about 15 points or more among men.
The Democrat launched a "Women for Pryor" tour through the state this month, and has put up YouTube videos slamming Cotton for "insulting" views on women. In June, a Pryor ad featured a woman identified as "Courtney"who asked "Who is this guy and what has he got against women?"
In Iowa, Republicans are savoring the strong showing of Joni Ernst, who leads Democrat Bruce Braley despite assaults on her position on abortion, which she opposes. Ernst, a Harley-Davidson riding Army veteran has built a tough political persona after turning around her campaign in an ad in which she spoke of castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.
Recent polls reveal a "reverse gender gap" as the male candidate Braley leads the female Ernst among women but trails further behind among men.
Ernst knew what was coming: "soon we'll be hearing about the war on women," she predicted after winning her primary, and warned Democrats she knows what real war is like.
Terri Lynn Land, a Republican Senate candidate in Michigan, also went on the offensive.
"As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters," Land said in an ad, as she sat in a living room and sipped from a coffee cup.
In Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell showcased his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao as he parried claims by Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes that he is anti-women.
In a new McConnell ad this week, young women hammer Grimes with the message: "She thinks I will vote for the candidate who looks like me, rather than the one who represents me."
In the latest Bluegrass Poll for the Courier-Journal, McConnell is in a statistical tie with Grimes among women voters while maintaining a one point lead overall.
Republicans have not closed the gender gap everywhere. And where they are struggling, the Democratic focus on women's economic issues may be the reason.
In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan slammed her Republican foe Thom Tillis for branding federal equal pay legislation a "gimmick." Her lead among women was 11 percent in a margin-of-error race, according to a Survey USA poll last week.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and potential 2016 presidential contender, hit women's issues hard when she campaigned with Hagan in Charlotte on Saturday, beseeching an 1,800 strong crowd to reach out to "every single woman."
"Women's rights are the canary in the coal mine. If you don't protect women's rights here at home and around the world, everybody's rights are lost," Clinton said.
In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn highlighted workplace fairness to widen her attack on Republican David Perdue's business record. A new CNN poll released
Friday put her lead among women voters at a gaping 18 percent.
In each of these races, the rhetoric aimed at women is often more focused on pocketbook issues as opposed to the more hot-button subjects of abortion and contraception.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said women voters may simply not be seeing enough from Democrats to get them out to vote.
There's a paradox here. Obama's low approval ratings are dragging down vulnerable Democrats. But the fact he's not in the national spotlight drawing a clear choice on women's issues with an opponent like Romney is making it more difficult to crystallize the arguments.
"The bigger challenge that the Democrats are facing this time may or may not be about whether the Republicans are appealing more to women — but the Democrats are not inspiring or turning out the women," said Walsh.
While Republicans may be doing better— it's too early to say that they are winning back what will be a decisive demographic in 2016.
In the 2010 midterms. the gender gap was smaller than usual in many races but the party fell back again when the White House was on the ballot.
Republican prospects may also suffer if Democrats nominate Clinton, a candidate with historic possibility even for some women who may otherwise balk at voting for Democrats.
"Her mere presence signifies the women's issue," said Lawless.
And sometimes, Republican rhetoric towards women still seems a little dated.
In a digital ad aimed at young women this month, the College National Republican Committee compared picking out a gubernatorial candidate to choosing a wedding gown.
The Democratic Governors Association said that proved Republicans "still have no idea how to communicate with women voters."