By Kathleen Hunter
Democrats fighting to retain control of the U.S. Senate know their success could hinge on motivating women supporters to vote in the November election.
To that end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is teeing up a slate of measures designed to appeal to women voters and to cast Republican candidates as insensitive — or even hostile — to them. The effort will ramp up next week with legislation aimed at closing the gender wage gap.
“We know that when women vote, we win,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Democratic leadership who led her party’s 2012 Senate campaign effort.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the midterm election to take the Senate majority, something that analysts say looks increasingly possible — especially as Democrats are defending 21 seats compared with 15 for Republicans.
Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2010 midterms, in which Republicans capitalized on sentiment against President Barack Obama and the health care law passed that year to win control of the House and additional seats in the Senate.
That year, 51 percent of women voters supported a Republican House candidate, the first time that proportion surpassed 50 percent since exit polls began measuring backing for congressional candidates in 1982. Political experts attributed the shift to unusually low turnout among women voters, especially single women.
The 2010 midterms were a sharp departure from 2008 and 2012 when Obama was on the ballot and Democratic candidates benefited from his campaign’s voter-mobilization efforts. With women voters nationwide, Democratic House candidates registered a 14-point edge in 2008 and an 11-point advantage four years later, according to exit polls.
Given the importance of women’s votes, the Democrats’ strategy “makes perfect sense,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
“There are a lot of women up, there are a number of prominent women candidates,” Duffy said, adding that Democrats also “need to change the subject” from the botched health care law rollout.
North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot this year, said a measure strengthening rules that employers show that wage disparity is based on job performance and not gender is “certainly an issue” that would help get women to the polls.
“When you look at the number of families with women as the head of the household, it’s just incredibly important — and its time has come,” Hagan, one of four Senate Democrats seeking re-election this year in states that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won in 2012, said in an interview.
The Senate later this month could begin considering a measure to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a proposal that Democrats and advocacy groups contend will disproportionately aid women.
The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, held a media briefing yesterday to highlight how raising the federal wage floor will help working women. About two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, according to the group.
Other parts of Democrats’ election-year focus on income inequality include plans for a vote on a measure to make child care more affordable. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, last month scheduled a vote on legislation to renew a federal block grant program that funds child-care programs.
“We know and what we see in polling is that women in particular are looking for a chance to get ahead, a fair shot to get ahead, not just get by,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, a Washington-based group that supports Democratic women candidates who back abortion rights.
For their part, Republicans say they have strong women candidates, pointing to those vying to win Democratic-held seats in places such as Michigan and Oregon. Some Republicans call the Senate effort pandering.
“There are strong Republican women running across the map — all of which would provide a solid alternative to their Democratic opponents,” said Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.
As of April 1, 16 Republican women had filed to run for U.S. Senate seats this year, compared with just 11 Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Many of those Republican women are competing in disputed primaries so may not end up on the November general-election ballot.
Citing recent polls showing that women disapprove of Obama’s handling of the health care law as well as statistics indicating that their median incomes have fallen since Obama took office, Republicans say they can connect with those voters.
“The Republican agenda on fixing and replacing Obamacare, getting our economy moving and creating jobs and security for people is very appealing to women,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only Senate Republican seeking re-election in a state Obama won in 2012.
During the 2012 campaign cycle, Republicans’ bid to win control of the Senate was damaged by a series of comments from candidates that Democrats cast as anti-women. The most notable was Missouri Senate contender Todd Akin’s assertion in August 2012 that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.
“There were a couple of candidates last time who unfortunately made statements that were inexcusable and that regrettably their statements were skillfully exploited by the Democrats to tar the party as a whole,” Collins said. “This time we have a much stronger group of candidates.”
She added, “I don’t think you’ll see a repeat of those kinds of mistakes.”
Still, Democrats are using their legislative agenda as fodder to attack Republicans.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Republican Mitch McConnell’s presumed general-election opponent if he survives a May 20 primary, criticized the Senate minority leader on April 1 for opposing a minimum wage increase, as she took part in the Louisville stop on a multistate bus tour.
McConnell shot back the same day, saying on the Senate floor that Democrats’ priority of taking “party-pleasing show votes over actually helping grow the middle class really is a tragedy for our country.”
Democrats are relying on a slate of women candidates, including Grimes, to help them keep their Senate majority.
In West Virginia, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is the presumed Democratic nominee to face another woman, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is viewed as among the party’s best chances for winning a Republican-held seat.
Of the three incumbent Democratic women seeking re-election; Hagan, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, only Shaheen is running in a state that Obama won in 2012, and she will likely face former Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
If Democrats have their way, “women are the ones who are going to decide the election in 2014, and there’s no question about that,” Stech said.