Is the Democrats’ ‘War on Women’ Rhetoric Backfiring in 2014?

Some candidates continue to make their Republican opponents’ pro-life convictions their central campaign theme, but such claims may be losing traction with voters.

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DENVER — Democrats in key races throughout the country want voters to know they favor abortion rights and birth control, claiming their Republican opponents would ban them as part of a “war on women.”

The mantra has become the key Democratic strategy in Iowa, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Colorado, where close Senate races threaten to cost Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

The pro-abortion “war on women” dialogue has worked for Democrats in the past, but polling increasingly indicates the message may fail this year. In fact, say political strategists, it appears to have backfired as November’s elections draw near.

“We’re finding that even women who are stridently pro-choice on abortion are growing tired of this. They want to hear about other issues,” said Debbie Brown, executive director of Colorado Women’s Alliance, an organization that promotes women’s interests in public policy. “This notion that women care only about abortion and birth control has become insulting.”

Nowhere has the public been more immersed in pro-abortion political ads than in Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall battles to save his job.

“I’ve never seen this level of war-on-women messaging anywhere outside of Colorado,” said Patrick Davis, a national political consultant and former political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We’re seeing it in Iowa and North Carolina, but nothing like in Colorado, where it is nearly 100% of Sen. Udall’s messaging.”

Feminist author Kimberley Strassel concurs. A member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Strassel wrote: “Mr. Udall and his allies have beaten the ‘war on women’ drum harder than any campaign.”

Until last spring, Udall was considered among the least vulnerable members of the Senate. Born into one of the country’s leading political dynasties, he’s an offspring of the late congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Mo Udall. He serves in the Senate alongside two first cousins — Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. He represents a fast-growing state in which all branches of government are controlled by Democrats.

Colorado was the first state to allow abortion on demand, and pro-abortion messaging has a long and proven track record of rewarding the state’s politicians who use it.

Udall’s Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, was seen as an easy target for Udall if pro-abortion messaging was to continue as a winning strategy.

Gardner has a 100% approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee and a zero rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. Udall has a 100% approval from NARAL and a zero rating from National Right to Life.

Democrats won the last Colorado Senate race, in 2010, when Democratic candidate Michael Bennet campaigned against the pro-life convictions of Ken Buck, the Republican district attorney of Weld County. Today, Sen. Bennet chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — a Washington-based organization dedicated solely to electing Democrats to the Senate.

Only election results will prove success or failure of the Democratic Party’s key 2014 strategy, but polling does not bode well for it. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll had Udall trailing Gardner by eight points, with only a slight lead among women voters, who are considered key to winning Colorado elections. Several more recent polls show Gardner with an overall lead and a gain in momentum.


Other Races

In Alaska, Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan is down among women by only five points against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. Sullivan, Alaska’s attorney general, has a 100% rating from National Right to Life. Begich supports abortion on demand for any reason and has a 100% approval rating from NARAL.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — with a zero rating from NARAL and 100% from National Right to Life — is within two points among women against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a pro-abortion Democrat endorsed by NARAL.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., endorsed by National Right to Life, is tied in polling with Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who has a 100% rating by NARAL.

In Iowa, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley campaigns against Republican Joni Ernst’s pro-life voting record in the Iowa Senate. Ernst leads in a recent Des Moines Register poll by one percentage point.

The North Carolina Senate race has Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House of Representatives, tied at 40% with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Tillis has the endorsement of North Carolina Right to Life; Hagan has a 100% approval from NARAL.

“It is absolutely clear that Democrats have overplayed the abortion issue everywhere,” said Dick Wadhams, political consultant, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and a close colleague of Republican political strategist Karl Rove. “In Colorado, it is an incessant, 100% onslaught of ads promoting abortion. Even those who are pro-choice have been put off by this.”

Among women questioning Udall’s all-abortion/birth-control campaign is Lynn Bartels, a longtime political reporter at The Denver Post. During a recent Udall-Gardner debate, Bartels posed a question that became national news and an instant social-media sensation.

“Mr. Udall, your campaign has been so focused on women’s issues that you’ve been dubbed ‘Mark Uterus.’… Have you gone too far?” Bartels asked.

After the audience stopped chuckling, Udall said Gardner brought the criticism on himself for supporting policies that would criminalize abortion and birth control.


Udall Doubles Down

Then The Denver Post’s editorial board, notably pro-abortion and liberal on social issues, dropped a bombshell on Udall.  It endorsed Gardner on Oct. 12, describing Udall’s single-issue campaign as “obnoxious.”

None of it seemed to faze Udall. After his debate embarrassment, he released a pro-abortion ad on Oct. 14 that is set in a gynecologist’s office. It features a female gynecologist telling women that Gardner threatens their reproductive rights.

“Even if you’re pro-choice, you are saying, ‘Really, Mark Udall? Is this really something people want to watch on TV anymore?’ My group started counting how many ads he had put out about abortion, and we finally lost count,” said Brown of the Colorado Women’s Alliance.

Brown believes she knows why all-abortion campaigns may cost Democrats the Senate. Her organization recently paid for a professional focus group study that found women 40 and younger are less worried about abortion rights than women 40 and older.

“Younger generations of women were not around before Roe v. Wade, so they don’t remember a time when abortion wasn’t legal,” Brown said. “They may not agree with pro-life politicians, but they don’t feel threatened by them either.”

Her organization also commissioned a scientific survey of women this summer and found 77% considered the “war on women” message an overused form of pandering.

“Women are fatigued with it, no matter where they stand on issues affecting abortion and contraception,” Brown said. “They hear ‘war on women’ rhetoric and roll their eyes.”


Democratic Perspectives

Some leading pro-life Democrats declined to comment on the “war of women” strategy when contacted by the Register, as did Sen. Bennet. But other party supporters defended the continued usage of the political rhetoric against pro-life Republican candidates.

As a liberal Democratic feminist, author, journalist and mother of two, Colorado resident Pamela White said she understands Udall's intense focus on abortion and birth control. She's happy about it and says the campaign has won her support. She also supported Bennet because of his unabashed support for abortion and birth control. And despite current polls, she believes the approach will re-elect Udall.

“For a great many women, reproductive choice is the core issue,” she said in an email to the Register. “It is the so-called pro-life community that has forced elections into the ob-gyn’s office. Mark Udall understands that as long as abortion rights are an issue, a huge number of women will vote for the pro-choice candidate.”

Cayce Utley, former deputy director of Democrats for Life and former national program director of Feminists for Life, who is serving as a Democratic volunteer in Virginia during the current election cycle, understands why candidates in her party remain so fixated on messages about abortion and contraception.

Though Utley remains pro-life, she left her professional work in pro-life organizations because she said so much of the pro-life movement opposes progressive Democratic ideas she believes would reduce abortions.

“What are the factors driving women to have abortions?” Utley asked. “I believe it’s lack of access to contraception, education, adequate housing, financial support and other aspects of a social safety network.”

Quoting statistics from Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute, Utley said two-thirds of women who seek abortions already have at least one child.

“That woman is trying to decide whether she should feed the one who’s in her living room or the one who’s inside of her,” Utley said. “Republicans could do better on helping women in that circumstance, but they can’t because they really don’t believe government should provide a comprehensive social safety net. Democrats are much better able to speak to that woman who’s wondering how to care for another child on a number of levels, including the promise to protect access to abortion and funding of contraception.”

Utley said until pro-life Republicans address what she considers the key causes of abortion, Democrats will continue using abortion politics against them. And she believes pro-abortion, pro-birth-control messaging will continue working long term for Democrats.


‘Gender Pandering’

Feminist political analyst Strassel strongly disagrees. In her Wall Street Journal article, titled “America Is ‘War on Women’ Weary,” Strassel argued that the strategy has become a political liability.

“Democrats are too invested in this strategy to let up now,” she concluded. “But if they lose the Senate in November, it will be in part because voters — men and women alike — expect more from a party than gender pandering.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.