In the wake of a spate of bad headlines arising from freshly unearthed blog posts in which Republican 1st Congressional District candidate Jim Hagedorn derisively referred to two female senators as “undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes,” Keith Downey, the chairman of the state GOP, on Monday called a press conference to “address the DFL’s silence on own party’s controversial behavior.”
Despite the tantalizing tease of the announcement, as it turned out, Downey was looking to make his political hay from some pretty thin gruel: a 12-second, soundless snippet of a two-year old video that shows a smiling Sen. Al Franken holding two traffic cones to his chest as if they were breasts and clowning around impishly.
Nonetheless, Downey struck the requisite tone of indignation. “Republican women are calling on Al Franken to apologize,” he said, calling the video “demeaning to women” and “offensive.”
In a reflection of the political retaliation at play, Downey took a few swipes at DFL chairman Ken Martin, who over the weekend called Hagedorn “unfit for office” after the magazine Mother Jones published several incendiary passages from Hagedorn’s now defunct blog, “Mr. Conservative.”
“It’s time for Al Franken to apologize. It’s time for Ken Martin to demand that Al Franken apologize,” said Downey, who added that Martin should demonstrate “some sincerity in his outraged calls for people to apologize for offensive behavior.”
Appeal for female vote
As a stand-alone controversy, Conegate may be nothing more than a small-bore gambit to tweak the news cycle at a time when many Minnesotans are more intrigued by their food-on-a-stick options at the State Fair than their choices between political candidates.
But as a strategic matter, Downey’s salvo reflects a theme likely to be much amplified in the coming months: aggressive efforts by both political parties to court female voters.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who joined Downey at the dais for the Conegate presser to denounce Franken, essentially acknowledged as much in her remarks, saying the issue would “perk” women’s ears because “everyone is clamoring for the women vote.”
Scott, who accused Democrats of a double standard on gender issues, contrasted Franken’s continued silence on Conegate — or refusal to rise to the bait — with Hagedorn’s “heartfelt” apology for his past blogging.
In a Facebook post, Hagedorn wrote that some of his “hard-hitting and tongue-in-cheek commentary was less than artfully constructed or included language that could lead to hurt feelings.” By Tuesday, however, the firebrand candidate returned to the offensive, complaining that “ultra-liberal organizers are using snippets of out-of-context tongue-in-cheek commentary I wrote a decade or more ago to call me derogatory names.” He also called for an end to “this rigged game of political correctness.”
David Schultz, a political scientist from Hamline University, said the late August outburst of indignation by the candidates and surrogates illustrate the political parties’ respective efforts to “crank up the outrage” over women’s issues.
“I think we’re going to see more of it,” Schultz said. In part, Schultz ventured, that’s due to a sleepy campaign cycle in which both parties have struggled to establish a “meta narrative.”
But strategic concerns, largely driven by women’s voting trends in non-presidential election years, also play a role in such explicit appeals to women.
For Democrats in Minnesota and across the country, Schultz said, voter turnout among single women will be especially critical to their fortunes in November. That demographic, which now accounts for approximately one fourth of voting age adults in the nation, represents one of the Democrats most loyal constituencies. In the 2012 election, about two-thirds of single women voted for President Barack Obama.
But in non-presidential years, Schultz said, turnout among single women tends to drop off more dramatically than among other voting groups. In the 2012 elections, 58 percent of single women voted, but, according to projections from the nonpartisan Voting Participation Center, that percentage could drop may drop by as much as third this year.
Reversing that trend is the principal strategic imperative for Democrats, said Schultz.
Fomenting outrage over impolitic or outright sexist remarks by a political candidate can occasionally pay huge political dividends. In 2012, blowback arising from Todd Aiken’s remarks about “legitimate rape” cost Republicans a chance at recapturing the U.S. Senate.
But in Schultz’s view, that uber-gaffe was more exception than the rule. “It’s not clear that appeals to anger and outrage motivate women to come out and vote in the same way they work with men,” he said, adding that some research suggests women are less likely to vote than men in more negative campaigns.
With the expectation of relatively low turnout in this year’s elections, swing voters are likely to be less important to both parties than energizing the base, according to Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on women in politics.
“Unless the landscape really changes between now and the election, I think it will be really hard to motivate a lot of swing voters to come out,” Pearson said.
Appeals to outrage over Franken’s clowning or Hagedorn’s barbed blogs likely won’t sway the undecided, she said, because “the voters who really care about politics and pay attention to these things have already made up their minds.” But that’s not to say there isn’t a political value, since such red meat helps whip up the base.
As the campaign season heats up, Pearson thinks Democratic efforts to mobilize single women are likely to focus on more sober matters of economic policy. For Gov. Mark Dayton and the rest of the DFL ticket, she said, that will mean a push to emphasize one of the DFL-controlled Legislature’s signature accomplishments from last session: the passage of the Women’s Economic Security Act.
With provisions that range from a minimum wage hike to pay equity rules for state contractors to workplace protections for nursing mothers, Pearson noted, WESA is a tailor-made to appeal to the single women. The challenge for Democrats: getting the word out.
“The Democrats will be talking about it a lot and, to the extent that they reach those voters who don’t know about it, I think it could be very helpful,” she said.
That effort picked up steam at the State Fair on Tuesday, where Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul announced plans for a delegation of Minnesota women to hit the road by bus in a renewed push for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The trip will culminate with a woman’s rights rally in Washington, D.C., next month.