Carlos Osorio / AP

Michigan: Democrats’ ‘war on women’ narrative may be swinging voters

Michigan is one state where Democrats have accused Republicans of marginalizing women – a strategy that may be working

The outcome of Michigan’s U.S. Senate race could be impacted by a controversial TV ad suggesting that the fact that Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land is female means she is more in tune with women’s rights than Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters.

The ad, put out by the Land campaign, ran in April, after Peters accused her of supporting policies unfavorable to women.

“Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe I’m waging a war on women,” Land says in the ad. “Really? Think about that for a moment.”

Hold music plays as Land shakes her head and takes a sip from a mug. Then she says, “I approve this message because, as a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters.”

The Land campaign did not return a request for comment.

The race is by no means over, with a torrent of ad spending still to come, but by most accounts, the ad was a large misstep for the Land campaign. Republican strategist Frank Luntz called it the “worst ad of the political process” and said his focus groups showed virtually no one liked it.

The Land ad and subsequent poll numbers were troubling for her supporters in Michigan, but they may highlight a growing problem for Republicans nationwide.

Both parties see courting women as crucial to winning control of the Senate this year. Democrats have been speaking about the importance of women’s rights at conferences leading up to the election, with Hillary Clinton calling for a women’s “movement” at the polls. They have also been hammering Republicans for their voting records on issues like abortion and birth control as well as less obvious issues that polls show are important to women, like access to social services and raising the minimum wage.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams said, "Ensuring women turn out this fall is critical to electing Democrats who will increase opportunity for women and families. Over the next 20 days, Democrats will lay out that contrast between our party that’s fought for pay equity and more ladders to the middle class, and Republicans who shut down the government and continue to spend taxpayer time and money infringing on women’s access to health care."

Republicans have countered that Democrats are fabricating the “war on women” narrative in order to woo voters away from the Republican Party. Prominent party members like former Senate candidate Carly Fiorina have been making the rounds on talk shows and op-ed pages, calling the Democrats’ narrative “baseless propaganda.”

The Republican National Committee did not return a request for comment.

But there’s some evidence that the Democrats’ strategy is working and the Republicans’ isn’t.

Some experts say the Land ad provides an example of why: When Democrats have attacked Republicans for their position on controversial issues, Republicans have countered mostly through image: putting women at the front of the party but not providing concrete evidence that Democrats’ claims are wrong.

“She had that one ad and then didn’t follow up trying to appeal to women voters,” said Susan Demas, a writer and political analyst for the website Inside Michigan Politics. “But her record on equal pay and abortion rights is well known in Michigan, and that doesn’t resonate well with women.”

Land supports abortion only in cases in which it could save the life of the mother, and she has refused to take a public position on whether Plan B, a pill taken after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy, should be legal. Peters, on the other hand, supports womens’ right to abortion and emergency contraception. He’s also supportive of issues that usually poll well with women, such as increasing the minimum wage, something Land is against.

It’s impossible to say just how bad Land’s ad was for her campaign, but it was criticized harshly in Michigan’s op-ed pages, was mocked on television and inspired a Democratic counter-ad blitz in which Michigan women talk about the ways Land has proved she doesn’t support women.

Between her ad’s first airing and now, Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, has slipped from holding a slight lead over Peters in most polls to being down several percentage points, with The New York Times calling Peters the likely winner in November. According to recent polling, Peters is benefiting from a growing gender gap in the race, leading Land by 20 percentage points among likely female voters.

That growing gap is hurting Republicans in several states this year.

It’s too early to say how large the gap (defined as the difference between Democrats’ advantage with women and Republicans’ advantage with men) will be nationally in these elections, but it has averaged 15 percentage points, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. This year it might average more than 20 percentage points, according to exit polling analysis conducted by public policy magazine National Journal.

In a closely watched Senate race in North Carolina, incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is benefiting from a gender gap of over 30 points, according to recent polling from Elon University in North Carolina. The gender gap is also driving up poll numbers for Democratic candidates in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Georgia and Utah.

“[Women’s rights] is a strong and effective issue that’s keeping the Democrats in the ballgame,” said Brent Budowsky, an opinion writer, a Democratic strategist and a former senior congressional staffer. “The gender gap is larger than ever. If Democrats keep the Senate, that will certainly be the single biggest reason.”

The “war on women” narrative isn’t working everywhere. In Utah, incumbent Democrat Mark Udall is taking a beating in the polls, and some say it’s because he has harped on the “war on women” theme too much.

“Mark Udall and his liberal allies have spent [millions more] than Republicans … yet Udall trails Cory Gardner,” National Republican Senatorial Committee press secretary Brook Hougesen said in an email to Al Jazeera. “Democratic candidates are flailing, and know there is only one, nasty, bitter divisive path to victory, and they have shown they will do whatever it takes — which means lying to and scaring female voters — in order to hold on to their majority,”

But Udall's campaign doesn’t plan on stopping its criticisms of Gardner, who supports overturning Roe v. Wade and restricting some forms of birth control.

“We’re not backing away from what are very important issues for Colorado women,” said James Owens, a spokesman for Udall’s campaign. “These are core social issues. Control over your own body is one of the frontiers of freedom …The Colorado electorate is uniquely receptive to that.”

According to pundits like Budowsky, this year is different from years past because gender-based issues are at the forefront of so many races. While the gender gap is nothing new, it may be growing as Republicans make issues like access to contraception — as well as issues that are often talked about in less gendered terms but nonetheless drive women to the polls, like access to social safety net programs and minimum wage laws — central issues in their campaigns.

The most recent election cycle’s gender gap may have been widened by rhetorical blunders (for example, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment). Some say that in these elections, womens’ issues are prominent enough and that, blunders or no blunders, Republicans are at a disadvantage.

“With each election cycle, Republicans learn a set of words not to use,” said Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on how dialogue surrounding gender has affected politics. “But the real problem they have women-wise is not a set of words … Their talk is backed up by action. They’re against anti-domestic-violence legislation, against equal pay legislation, food stamps … I think women are finally beginning to catch on.”

Democrats have harped on those issues in an effort to sway voters this year. And as the Land ad proved, Republicans’ responses haven’t always been effective.

That strategy could again be seen in a recent series of ads put out by the College Republican National Committee earlier this month, in which a woman tries on different wedding dresses that are supposed to represent different candidates.

“I thought, “Is this The Onion, or is this the GOP?’” said Megan Havern, a 21-year-old Michigan native and senior at Michigan State University. “I care about so much more than getting married.”

She felt similarly about Land’s “Really?” ad. She said if Republicans like Land want to win women’s votes, they have to prove they care about women’s issues and not just their image.

“It offended me that she’s trying to sell herself as a candidate for women but she didn’t talk about any kind of policy,” Havern said. “She’s trying to appeal to women, but I don’t know what her stances are.”

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