Anticipating Attacks, GOP Campaigns Focus On Courting Women Voters

Sep 19, 2014
Originally published on September 19, 2014 8:57 pm

At the Democratic party's annual Women's Leadership Forum Friday, Hillary Clinton delivered a message that could have come straight from the script being used by Democratic candidates all over the country.

"For too many women, for too many families, they don't just face ceilings on their dreams," said the former Secretary of State. "It feels to them as though the floor has collapsed beneath their feet. That's not how it's supposed to be in America."

She said a national movement is building around issues facing families, such as wages and paid family leave.

"This movement won't wait and neither can we. And that's why we're here today. And we're also here because the midterms really matter."

The midterm elections are less than 50 days away, and if there was a theme in the remarks at the forum, it might be, "Hey, ladies, we are your party." For nearly 35 years, that's been the case: Women are more likely than men to vote Democratic. Pew Research Center found a party-affiliation gap of 13 percentage points in 2012.

But Republicans desperately want to change this dynamic. This year, Republican congressional candidates went on the air early with ads like this one:

Mike Coffman is a Republican congressman from Colorado, considered by some to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the House. And it's not a coincidence this was the ad his campaign picked to open the season. A lot of Republican candidates went up early with ads painting themselves as strong on so-called women's issues.

"We encouraged members to have their first ad be a positive ad geared towards women voters," says Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, "to pre-inoculate themselves from these sorts of attacks that we know are coming their way."

In recent elections, Republican candidates have struggled with how to talk about things like birth control and rape — so for almost two years now, Bozek says, establishment Republicans have been holding strategy sessions.

"The fact that we're up early, we're not waiting for there to be a problem, is strikingly different from 2012," she says.

One of the more creative ads in this vein comes from Republican Stewart Mills, who is running for the House from Minnesota.

"In the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event," his wife Heather narrates. "My husband puts on pink heels to raise money for victims of domestic violence."

Jon Downs with FP1 Strategies produced the ad.

"We're anticipating that they are going to run this false 'war on women' campaign," he says, "and our goal is for people to see that, and know something about who Stewart is — the real Stewart Mills — and dismiss those outside attacks."

But in at least one case, the strategy got ahead of the congressman's voting record. An ad for Florida Rep. Steve Southerland cites his record advocating for things like the Violence Against Women Act.

Except that last year, Rep. Southerland joined the majority of House Republicans in voting against the version of the act that became law, opening himself to charges of dishonesty.

"It's not about what ads that you run," says Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter. "It's about what policies you stand for."

And as evidence of how important the women's vote is, we can expect this fight to keep getting re-litigated for the next two months, and for the next two years.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's not officially autumn yet, but you could say it's the first day of the fall campaign season. That's because Congress finished up its work yesterday and is now off until November. Lawmakers are free to campaign seven days a week. One group of voters is once again at the center of attention, and that's women. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At the Democratic Party's annual Women Leadership Forum event, Hillary Clinton delivered a message that could have come straight from the script being used by Democratic candidates all over the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: For too many women, for too many families, they don't just face ceilings on their dreams. It feels to them as though the floor has collapsed beneath their feet. That's not how it's supposed to be in America.

KEITH: She said a national movement is building around issues facing families, things like wages and paid family leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: This movement won't wait and neither can we. And that's why we're here today. We're also here because the midterms really matter.

KEITH: The midterm elections are less than 50 days away. And if there was a theme in the remarks of the Women's Leadership Forum, it might be, hey, ladies, we are your party. For nearly 35 years, that's been the case. Women are more likely than men to vote Democratic. But Republicans desperately want to change this dynamic. And so this year, Republican congressional candidates went on the air early with ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Disturbing reports of sexual assaults in the military. A Marine, Mike Coffman, took action.

BLOCK: Coffman is a Republican congressman from Colorado, considered by some to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And Coffman bucked his own party to help pass the Violence Against Women Act.

BLOCK: And it's not a coincidence this was the ad his campaign picked to open the season. A lot of Republican candidates went up early with ads painting themselves as strong on so-called women's issues. Andrea Bozek is with the National Republican Congressional committee.

ANDREA BOZEK: We encouraged members to have their first ad be a positive ad geared towards women voters to pre-inoculate themselves from these sorts of attacks that we know are coming their way.

BLOCK: Like a vaccine. In recent past elections, Republican candidates have struggled with how to talk about things like birth control and rape. For almost two years now, Bozek says establishment Republicans have been holding strategy sessions.

BOZEK: The fact that we're up early, we're not waiting for there to be a problem, is strikingly different from 2012.

BLOCK: One of the more creative ads in this vein comes from Republican Stewart Mills, who is running for the House from Minnesota. His wife Heather narrates.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

H. MILLS: In the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, my husband puts on pink heels to raise money for victims of domestic violence.

BLOCK: Jon Downs with FP1 Strategies produced the ad.

JON DOWNS: We're anticipating that they're going to run this false "war on women" campaign and our goal is for people to see that and know something about who Stewart is, the real Stewart Mills, and to dismiss those outside attacks.

BLOCK: But in at least one case, the strategy got ahead of the Congressman's voting record.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Our Congressman Steve is advocating for things like Violence Against Women Act.

BLOCK: Except that last year, Florida Representative Steve Southerland joined the majority of House Republicans in voting against the version of the act that became law, opening himself to charges of dishonesty.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: His ad is troubling.

BLOCK: Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter.

STEPHANIE CUTTER: It's not about what ads that you run, it's about what policies that you stand for.

BLOCK: And as evidence of how important the women's vote is, we can expect this fight to keep getting re-litigated for the next two months and the next two years. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.