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National Journal: The Democrats’ War to Win Women Voters

February 15, 2013

By Beth Reinhard

Michelle D. Bernard, president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, Neera Tanden, president & CEO of the Center for American Progress, and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) at the “Women 2020: How Women are Reshaping the Economy, Politics and the World” conference on July 18, 2012 (Kristoffer Tripplaar)

Lilly Ledbetter, move over.

Debate over the Violence Against Women Act in Congress is refueling the successful “war on women” attacks waged against the Republican ticket in 2012, as Democrats seek to gin up the women’s vote in key Senate, House and gubernatorial races.

After House Republicans narrowly carried female voters in 2010 for the first time since 1982, Democrats vowed never to let the gender gap erode again. President Obama’s 2012 campaign unleashed an unprecedented media blitz touting his supporting for abortion rights, Planned Parenthood and the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay. Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney with an 11-point advantage among women.

Now Democrats are confronting a challenging 2014 election environment, knowing that presidents usually lose members of their party during the midterm vote of their second term. So they are seizing on GOP resistance to reauthorizing the domestic violence bill in an effort to continue to brand the Republican Party as anti-woman.

“When we announced our top ten GOP targets, we promised a comprehensive plan to expose their out-of-touch behavior. First step? The Violence Against Women Act,” read the missive Thursday from House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC trying to wrest control of the House. Similar e-mail blasts have come this week from UltraViolet, a new liberal group headed by former leaders, and from Barbara Buono, the New Jersey Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Another Democratic super PAC, American Bridge, hit Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for his vote against VAWA just hours before he delivered the Republican Party’s response to the State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

“If Republicans don’t express outrage and inform the public about what VAWA really is and what it does and doesn’t do for women, there is a real political currency to be gained here,” warned Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who offered advice to House Republicans at their retreat last month in Williamsburg. “The war on women was partly effective in the last election because Republicans never came up with an indignant, full-throated, just-the-facts response to these phony attacks.”

Republicans are uneasy about a provision in the bill that would allow Native American officials to prosecute non-Indians accused of abuse in tribal courts. In a statement posted on his web site, Rubio also criticized the bill for diverting some of the money from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs.

But the imposing title of the legislation makes it difficult for Republican objections to its weedy provisions to break through.

“Violence against women should not be a partisan issue,” said Chris Harris, a spokesman for American Bridge. “That is an easy message to get across, even to people who don’t follow the legislative process. It’s like opposing the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts.”

The VAWA-related attacks come at a time when the GOP is trying to figure out how to improve its appeal among the young voters, Hispanics and women who rebuffed Romney in the November election. Rubio, a 41-year-old, charismatic Cuban-American, is considered a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016 in part because of his potential appeal to those groups.

“Tonight, Marco Rubio will smile, look into the camera and attempt to convince the country that a kinder, gentler Republican Party was born at some point over the past three months,” said the e-mail attack from American Bridge. “In fact, the young, fresh, exciting Rubio’s record on issues that impact the lives of women looks exactly like those of the tired, old Republicans that ruined the party’s brand in the first place.”

In a move that could provide more fodder for attacks from the left, Rubio on Thursday announced he will again sponsor a bill that would make it a crime to help a minor cross state lines to get an abortion without notifying a parent. The conservative senator highlighted his opposition to abortion in the opening of his nationally televised speech on Tuesday, saying “America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, said parental notification laws are popular and that any attempts to discredit Rubio among women voters would backfire. But she acknowledged that the VAWA-related criticism could have staying power.

“There are fair reasons that Rubio gave and that many other people have given for opposing VAWA, but if the usual web if messaging comes together and if there’s silence from the Republican party it could stick,” Dannenfelser said.

Of the 22 Republican senators who voted against VAWA, those who are up for re-election in 2014 are unlikely to face serious Democratic opposition. There are more vulnerable Republicans in the House, where Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that “no decision has been made” about taking up the bill.

In a sign some House Republicans realize the potential political repercussions of the debate, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is urging her colleagues to back the bill. “Especially in communities like West Virginia where victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in rural and remote communities face unique obstacles in their efforts to escape abusive and dangerous relationships, support provided by VAWA can literally be lifesaving,” Capito, who is running for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller in 2014, said in a written statement.

VAWA is also cropping up in the 2013 gubernatorial races. In New Jersey, where Christie is a strong favorite for re-election, his female challenger is under pressure to erode his popularity with women voters. “By allowing the act to expire in January, House Republicans have turned their backs on New Jersey,” Buono said in new appeal to supporters. “I have fought to protect women and their families.”

Women’s issues are likely to be even more pronounced in the Virginia governor’s race, which pits Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has crusaded for stricter regulations on abortion clinics, against Terry McAuliffe, the former national chairman of the Democratic Party. The state became ground zero for the “war on women” attacks last year after the Republican-led state legislature and Gov. Bob McDonnell backed a law requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before receiving abortions. On Thursday, a liberal group called ProgressVA accused McDonnell of trying to block Virginia residents from buying insurance policies that cover abortion under a new federal healthcare exchange.

“I think abortion will be one of the top issues in the governor’s race because you’ve seen the extreme right wing in Virginia making decisions and Cuccinelli making a career out of attacking women’s health,” said Anna Scholl, ProgressVa executive director. “As we saw in last year’s election, women find these attacks on them distasteful.”

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