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Can women save Democrats in a Republican year?

The GOP is out of step with women, but that may not matter until 2016

October 30, 2014 2:00AM ET

Democrats are struggling to hold their Senate majority in the face of a disconcerting paradox: Their traditional edge with women is shrinking even though they are talking incessantly about the very subjects women say they care about most. And no, I am not referring to below-the-waist issues — Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway’s irreverent shorthand for abortion and contraception. This year it’s all about the economy.

There was a time in the spring when the Democratic message of the month, week, day and hour was raising the minimum wage. President Barack Obama returned it to center stage when he declared in a Labor Day speech that “America deserves a raise,” and it’s now a staple in Democratic ads and campaign pitches. Equal pay for equal work is another party crusade turning up in ads and speeches. And Republicans? Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, they have repeatedly blocked votes on both issues.

This puts the GOP in the good graces of business interests, but crosswise with the realities of women’s lives: Nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and women make about 78 cents for each dollar paid to men for comparable work. It also puts Republicans at odds with what Gallup finds are working women’s chief concerns. Equal or fair pay topped the list in a poll last month, followed by equal opportunity for promotions and advancement. Only 28 percent of women said they were satisfied with their pay, compared with 34 percent of men — the widest gap on a list of 13 issues.

On top of that, private polling and focus groups conducted for Republicans this summer found that enforcing equal pay for equal work is the policy that independents and Democrats believe would help women the most, Politico reported. Furthermore, reporters Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer wrote, “Two policies former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promoted as a way to make inroads with middle-class women and families — charter schools and flexible work schedules — were actually the least popular policies among female voters.”

Such disconnects have often produced a gender gap substantial enough to propel Democrats to victory. This year, however, the party’s advantage among women has been all but neutralized by a pileup of favorable conditions for Republicans. Democrats say their focus on women’s economic concerns is the reason so many races are so close in such an inhospitable political environment, but they nevertheless face uphill odds to save their Senate majority. 

Hidden GOP weakness

Their burdens include an unpopular Democratic president whose campaign skills appear to have atrophied, a high number of Senate races in red or red-leaning states, a midterm electorate that traditionally skews older and whiter, historic patterns that favor the out-of-power party six years into a presidency, a number of appealing GOP candidates and a world that keeps offering up frightening challenges, such as Ebola and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The upshot is that Republicans are virtually certain to gain House and Senate seats and quite possibly Senate control after Nov. 4.

Yet the GOP’s likely success masks the fundamental weakness of its policies on issues of import to women’s lives and puts off to another day any inclination to make changes. That will be a prime test for the next Republican presidential nominee, especially if he or she is running against a certain grandmother with a storied history of championing women. With the presidency at stake, the 2016 electorate will be larger, more diverse and less affluent than the people voting this year.

Democrats' shrinking advantage among women seems to have more to do with Obama fatigue or a broader disengagement among voters than an embrace of specific Republican policies.

Polls in the final weeks of this midterm campaign season convey a mixed picture on women. Nationally, one found the gender gap had vanished (PDF), while another showed women favored Democrats (PDF) by 8 percentage points. Polling in key Senate races — including Arkansas, Kentucky, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana and New Hampshire — was similarly mixed, but the trends for Democrats were consistent: Their advantages with women have been shrinking and are swamped by the GOP edge among men.

But these shrinking advantages seem to indicate Obama fatigue or a broader disengagement among voters rather than an embrace of specific Republican policies. For instance, which party do voters think would handle the economy better? Republicans are even with Democrats or ahead of them in most recent polls. That’s not surprising, since the public holds a pessimistic view (PDF) of the economy. At the same time, however, Democrats still dominate on the question of which party is more concerned with the needs of “people like me.”

The same tension is evident in continued efforts by Democratic candidates and outside groups, notably Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and EMILY’s List, to highlight the waist-down issues meant to energize female voters. It’s not optimal that Udall has been nicknamed Mark Uterus, yet it’s anti-abortion Republicans who are out of step on the merits. In an Ipsos-Reuters poll of Colorado, 71 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The problem for Udall — and part of the reason he trails Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in most polls — is that in an open-ended question about priorities, the economy was first, at 25 percent, while abortion and contraception didn’t even register.

More adept Democratic campaigners are leaning into their party’s message of concern, particularly as it applies to women’s lives. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has an ideal foil in McConnell as she urges voters to oust him if they want progress on equal pay and minimum wage laws. The message and McConnell’s unpopularity are helping her keep the race tight in a state that Obama lost in 2012 by nearly 23 points.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu used particularly striking language to highlight the same economic concerns in a debate this month with two Republican challengers. “I support pay equity. My opponents do not. I support paying women the same amount of money for equal work. I support raising the minimum wage. My opponents do not,” she said. “There are so many women that children depend on their salaries as well as their love and support. They depend on the money they bring home for their well-being. I think it’s really almost criminal that my opponents will not support an increase in the minimum wage.”

But Landrieu faces an unreceptive electorate in a state that Obama lost by 17 points in 2012. She has a 6-point advantage among women in a new Suffolk University poll, according to poll director David Paleologos. But in an expected runoff between her and Rep. Bill Cassidy, he says, that shrinks to 1 point — while Cassidy has a 16-point lead among men and a 7-point lead overall. Democrats will be defending Senate seats in 2016 on much less hostile terrain.

The wait for 2016

The Democrats’ midterm dilemma came through starkly in recent focus groups of Walmart moms in Charlotte and New Orleans — part of a continuing research project conducted by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Margie Omero. Walmart moms are independent swing voters who shop at least once a month at Walmart and have at least one child under 18 at home.

In New Orleans, when they were asked what they think about every day, their first responses were the economy, jobs, “trying to make a living” and “inequality — men still get paid more than we do.” In Charlotte, similarly, the lingering effects of the Great Recession were evident in day-to-day concerns that included “saving money,” “making money,” jobs, job security and “trying to make a living.” One woman explained, “If you’re making it, you have to save it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For all the talking and advertising Democrats have done to promote their women-friendly policies on these issues, the 20 women in the two Walmart mom groups did not see any difference between Democrats and Republicans. Only a presidential campaign, with its high visibility and high stakes, has the potential to change that.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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