November 8 2013

Cuccinelli and Women: Good News & Bad News

Charlotte Hays

Ken Cuccinelli, who narrowly lost his bid to be governor of Virginia, is the latest casualty of the “war on women.” If the GOP were smart, it would be looking for ways to make sure that Cuccinelli is the last victim of this phony war.

It should be pointed out that, given the real issue that emerged at the end of the campaign (ObamaCare), the "war on women" rhetoric didn't work as well for Democrats as it has in the past. 

Carrie noted on “The Corner” that the gender gap in the Cuccinelli-Terry McAuliffe race was narrower than the 12 point gap in the presidential race—it was down to 9 points. She quoted James Hohmann:

This raises questions about whether women are starting to tune out “war on women” messaging and whether apocalyptic suggestions that Cuccinelli would try to ban common forms of birth control were effective at driving women to the polls who might not typically vote in an off-year.

Since the “war on women” was invented out of thin air by Democrats to smear Republicans, it would be great if women tuned out the “war on women” rhetoric. But Democrats will continue to use it and the GOP must learn to combat it.

And that 9 points by which Cuccinelli lost women remains significant. Also significant: among younger women, aged 30 to 44, McAuliffe killed him. This was 19 points worse than outgoing governor Bob McDonnell did with the same demographic.

By contrast, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who like Cuccinelli is pro-life and who has actually cut state funding for Planned Parenthood, did well with women voters. What gives?

Kim Strassel (subscription required) says Cuccinelli adopted the wrong strategy with regard to the social issues:  

He adopted—as many Republicans have—what co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage Maggie Gallagher calls the GOP's "truce" strategy. As she describes it: "Republican candidates pledge not to run ads on topics such as abortion. When social subjects arise, GOP candidates go mute, retreat and change the subject."

Throughout the Virginia race, Mr. Cuccinelli danced around the question of abortion in debates. He ran ads to "counter" the Democratic theme but never mentioned the subject. One ad featured a black woman, "a mother and a Democrat," who insisted that the "attacks against him are false and misleading." She then switched to his jobs plan.

One McAuliffe campaign ad featured birth control pills with the message that Cuccinelli would take women’s birth control pills from them. This diverted attention from McAuliffe’s questionable business dealings and his even more extreme positions on social issues. (McAuliffe opposes any restriction on abortion, a position more extreme than that of most voters.But this was never an issue.)

So why was Chris Christie not vulnerable to “war on women” messaging? Strassel writes:  

The left tried the McAuliffe strategy with Mr. Christie, but it never got much traction. For one, the New Jersey governor didn't duck. "I'm pro-life," he said in 2011. "I believe in exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That's my position, take it or leave it." Most New Jerseyans did not regard Mr. Christie's characteristically blunt statement as a deal breaker. All the more so because the governor made clear that his primary focus was jobs, government reform and education.

Mr. Christie also deftly put social controversies in a broader framework where he had the upper hand. He insisted that his Planned Parenthood cuts were necessary to fix a gaping budget deficit—and he never wavered. His recent decision not to appeal a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage was partly a bow to political reality, yet he also described it as a nod to his voters' will.

Must-read column, but I think it leaves one issue unaddressed: how do you combat a smear?

The notion that the GOP wants to get its hands on women’s birth control is a breath-taking lie. I am a Catholic and I embrace and see the value of the Church’s teachings on contraception. But this just isn’t a political issue. Republicans by and large believe Sandra Fluke can have at it, as long as she doesn't force Jesuits to pay for her pills.

It was shocking at first when the bizarre notion that Republicans want to take away contraception first surfaced.

It has been a stunningly effective lie, though. I can’t see that it would be particularly good for a candidate to stand up and say, “I don’t want to take away your contraception.” That’s almost giving this lie too much credibility. But the GOP, perhaps at a national level, has to find a way to put this smear to bed.  And Republicans should take heart from the narrowing of the gender gap in the Cuccinelli race. It is a signal that, when women know the real issues, they are more likely to reject the tired old "war on women" messaging.

 

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