Democratic women candidates make equal pay a top issue in midterm elections

Heather R. Mizeur, a candidate in Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial primary, meets with people at the Silver Spring, Md., Civic Center on Aug. 1, 2013. (Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post)
Heather R. Mizeur, a candidate in Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, meets with people at the Silver Spring, Md., Civic Center on Aug. 1, 2013. (Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post)

In a week when the Republican Party marked the one-year anniversary of its reset strategy with women,  Democratic  candidates, particularly women, are hammering their male opponents over equal pay and other women’s issues, hoping to drive up turnout and support among “breadwinner moms,” a key voting bloc in high profile races across the country. In Texas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis held a press conference Wednesday blasting her opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), for his opposition to the Texas Equal Pay Act. Davis sponsored the bill, which Abbott said he would veto, just as Gov. Rick Perry (R) did in June. Sen. Kay Hagan, running in a closely watched race in North Carolina where her opponent has yet to emerge from the GOP primary, tweeted this:

This comes as President Obama has stepped up his focus on women and is set to travel Thursday to Orlando, where he will meet with women at Valencia College and detail a women’s and working families economic agenda in advance of a series of regional events and a June summit at the White House.

Also on Thursday, Heather Mizeur, the only woman in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland, is set to get a jump on her male competitors by being the first  to release a woman’s platform, an agenda that calls for a state version of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a living wage and paid family leave.

Sixty percent of the primary voters in Maryland are women. Aides to Lt. Anthony Brown, who leads the race by 20 points and has not released a women’s agenda, stressed that Maryland has one of the smallest gender pay gaps in the country, and that there would likely be little difference on the issues between the Democrats competing in the race. Yet Mizeur said the difference is on the emphasis her campaign is placing on these issues.

“We are all carving out and showing what our priorities would be as governor and I have made these issues that are central to women’s economic equality key to creating a Maryland that lives up to her full potential,” said Mizeur, who is a distant third in the race according to the latest poll. “The question is not whether you support something in theory. The question is whether you make it a priority. I would make it a priority as governor. This is about economic inequality, and it must be addressed with urgency. When women run for higher office, these issues get addressed.”

The focus on gender economics is yet another offensive in the so-called “war on women,” a political narrative that in 2012 focused primarily on abortion and contraception, playing up off-color comments by conservative candidates and their allies. An issue like equal pay, unlike abortion, doesn’t come with baggage, which is helpful in more conservative states where Democrats are vulnerable and in some cases facing long odds.

“If Davis is going to run a competitive race, she needs to convince Anglo women, two-thirds of whom have in recent years voted Republican, to cross over. Hammering Abbott on his equivocal stance [against] a Lone Star Lilly Ledbetter law is not a bad strategy,” said Mark Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice University. “Especially compared to attacking Abbott for his position on women’s reproductive rights, which could likely do the Davis campaign as much harm as good.”

For their part, Republicans have argued that existing state and federal laws are adequate to ensure equal pay for women.  This week, two prominent Republican women in Texas strayed from those talking points; one suggested that women are too busy to focus on equal pay and another said women need to become better at negotiating for higher salaries. Aides to Abbot distanced themselves from those comments, saying that as governor, Abbott would make sure state and federal equal pay laws are enforced. “He believes it’s inappropriate to ever blame the victim of discrimination and that’s why he remains focused on ensuring greater prosperity and opportunity for all women and Texans,” said Matt Hirsch, a campaign spokesman.

More broadly, Republicans have struggled to craft a unified counter argument for the Democrat’s “war on women,”  which has been used by groups like Emily’s List to swell their donor rolls and mailing lists. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster said the focus on equal pay could help mobilize voters because it resonates particularly well with swing voters and unmarried women voters, a key part of the Obama coalition — the president won single women in 2012 by 38 points over Republican nominee Mitt Romney — but a group that backed Republicans in greater numbers in 2010.

“We haven’t seen it this focused in a long time,” Lake said, of the heavy emphasis on women’s economic issues. “This can help mobilize turnout.”

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With the refocus from abortion to paychecks, the debate highlights a cultural shift powered by the women’s movement that finds more women in the workforce and more women heading households. In 1960, women were the sole or primary breadwinner in 11 percent of households; now that figure stands at 40 percent, according a recent report. Yet Republicans, have argued that more laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act, or the Lilly Ledbetter Act,  means more litigation, not equality. “The Lilly Ledbetter Act will inspire more lawsuits than fair pay from the onset of a woman’s career,” said Lisa Camooso Miller, a Republican strategist. “Republicans believe in equal pay for equal work; we don’t believe that legislation will resolve the issue of pay equality. Any Democratic effort to turn this into a campaign issue would be strictly political theater.”

In Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sent supporters a letter in November from Ledbetter, asking for $5 donations and highlighting Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s opposition to the 2009 bill.  This month, in a similar e-mail, the Grimes campaign highlighted McConnell’s opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. And Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who is running for Senate in Georgia, has called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, highlighting statistics that show  women earn 81 cents for every dollar men earn in Georgia.

Here’s a look at how other states compare to Georgia, which ranks 12th.  The darker colored states are closer to gender parity: In countering Democratic attacks, Republicans have said that for everyone, men and women, the economy is bad, and it’s because of failed Democratic policies that have led to stagnant wages. “Democrats like Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan and Mark Udall have created an environment where opportunity is minimal, job availability is scarce, and workers’ hours are reduced, which is bad for women and all workers,” said Brook Hougeson, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Republicans are focused on growing opportunity for women and all workers.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
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