Facing an uphill task of trying to retake the House, Democrats are pinning their hopes on the same voters who carried them in 2012–women.
As they prepare to open their annual retreat Thursday in Cambridge, Md., that key voting bloc–particularly unmarried women–is the focus for House Democrats, who need to pick up 17 seats to take the House back from Republicans.
They are scheduled to kick off the morning with a session “Unmarried Women: They Will Elect You if You Get it Right,” led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), which will center on an initiative called “Women’s Economic Agenda,” which was launched by DeLaura and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) this past summer.
The panel will feature, political strategist Jill Alper, pollster Stan Greenberg and Page Gardner, who is founder of of a group called “Women’s Voices Women Vote.”
According to Gardner’s group, there are 53 million unmarried women in the country, or 1 out of every 2 women, and in 2010, nearly 40 percent of unmarried women were not registered to vote.
Unmarried women, of all races, have been a key voting bloc for Democrats. In 2012, unmarrried women backed President Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, 67 percent to 31 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.
But, as they found out in 2010, voters who show up in midterms are very different than those who show up in a presidential cycle. Midterm voters are older and whiter and more conservative, and in 2010, the gender gap narrowed a bit, with unmarried white women going for Republicans at higher rates than they did in 2008 and 2012.
“Unmarried women are all too often still the last ones to be heard in America, even as they have become a central part of our economy and society,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Whether it is equal pay, work/life balance or access to quality, affordable child care, or any other issue, Congress needs to do a better job addressing the reality of unmarried women’s lives.”
The focus on economic issues is an extension of the “war on women” narrative that dominated the 2012 cycle and proved to be effective for Democrats. In focus groups, pollsters have found that the issues resonate with a broad swath of women.
“The linkage of equal pay and minimum wage and unemployment benefits, all of this is kitchen table economics and it’s great for Democrats because they can be stronger on it,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has run focus groups on these issues. “And women believe that Democrats will be stronger on it so it’s a way to get the woman’s vote in your camp. It mobilizes Democratic women and swing independent women. With social issues you can mobilize, but you can also alienate.”
Kentucky Senate candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, highlighted a new report on her state that found that 250,000 women would benefit from a minimum wage hike–Democrats want to raise it $10.10. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Grimes is trying to unseat, opposes raising the minimum wage arguing that it would cost jobs.
And efforts in the House, which have included a forums and events across the country focused on their women’s agenda, have been underscored by the Democrats in the Senate, who have tried to frame Republicans as out of step with the needs of average women.
“Are Republicans really going to block giving 15 million American women a raise? Are they prepared to tell one in four women in America that $7.25 an hour, which is barely enough to buy a couple gallons of gas, is enough for them to support themselves and their kids?” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) at a press conference last month, where she was flanked by roughly half of the Senate women’s caucus. “If they are, what does blocking a minimum-wage increase say about their priorities when it comes to American women?”
For their part, conservatives and Republicans have zeroed in on women as well, cautioning and tutoring candidates against falling into the same messaging issues that plagued the party in 2012, when candidates drew criticism for controversial comments about abortion and rape. With the Affordable Care Act the GOP and their allies see an opening and see women as their key audience.
One of the most prominent ads of the season is an American for Prosperity spot that features a woman named Emilie Lamb, a former Obama supporter, who suffers from lupus and said that her insurance plan was cancelled because of the Affordable Care Act. Like Democrats, who targeted messages around signing up for the Affordable Care Act to women–particularly moms–Republicans see women as particularly open to narratives around the law.
The Republican National Committee has launched a “Women on the Right Unite,” initiative and is recruiting Republican women under 40 from 50 counties across the targeted Senate, House and governor’s races to help target other women.
In the most contested races across the country, Republicans and their allies are hammering incumbent Democrats for their support of health care, often featuring women, particularly white women who appear to be single and working class, in their ads.
“Obamacare produces job insecurity. Women are concerned they might be laid off from work because of the impact of the employer mandate. It also causes personal health insecurities,” said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist. “Women are more particular about who their doctors are than men. We now know under Obamacare, you can’t necessarily keep your insurance or your doctor. Women see this as an intrusion into their personal lives.”
Democrats are unlikely to take the House back this year–our pollsters have put their chances at 1 percent. The question will be can they maintain their edge with women voters in competitive Senate races, where Democrats have a six seat edge, and tough races featuring women candidates in red states.