North Carolina, a state that at the presidential level went barely blue in 2008, and then barely red in 2012, has become ground zero for the “war on women” strategy that has worked well for Democrats in the past and is fueling much of their national approach to the midterm elections.
Progressive women’s groups are pouring money and resources into the Tar Heel State, focusing on one of the toughest match-ups of the cycle, with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, facing well-funded conservative challenger, Republican Tom Tillis (R), speaker of the North Carolina House.
EMILY’s List has made their biggest foray into the midterms so far, with an upper six-figure ad buy in North Carolina, as part of its “Women Vote,” campaign. The group also plans to spend $3 million in the state. And Planned Parenthood launched its national “Women are Watching,” campaign last week in Raleigh and will also spend $3 million on the ground, registering and mobilizing women voters. The effort, the group’s biggest investment of the cycle, will be heavy on voter engagement rather than ad buys.
“North Carolina is our top priority in terms of keeping the Senate,” said Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood. “What we’ve found is that when we go out and tell women the differences between candidates, they are more likely go out and vote for the candidate that supports women’s health.”
For her part, Hagan is embracing the women-focused strategy, launching “Women for Kay,” and framing herself as a fighter for North Carolina women up against outside forces:
The race has many of the same variables of the successful Democratic contests where the “war on women” rhetoric was most effective. Hagan is running against a conservative man. The state has a sizeable population that looks like the Obama coalition — college educated whites, African-Americans and Latinos. As well, women have been key to Hagan’s fortunes in the past — in 2008, in a match-up against then- Sen, Elizabeth Dole (R), Hagan won women 55 percent to 41 percent.
“North Carolina is a state that will hinge on women voters, voters who know that Kay Hagan has been a champion for women and families,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List. “From opposing minimum wage, blocking equal pay for women and restricting women’s access to healthcare, Thom Tillis and his ‘divide and conquer’ record of extremism far too out-of-touch for North Carolina.”
The Tillis camp dismissed the strategy as an ineffective re-run.
“The left has been talking about a “war on women” for a couple of cycles now,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ campaign manager. “It’s designed for the media and not grounded in reality and it’s based on scare tactics.”
Since Hagan won six years ago, Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor, and conservatives have taken over the state legislature, pushing through a raft of measures, including a bill that tightens restrictions on abortions.
Shaw said the law, which requires pregnant women to take an initial dose of abortion medication under a doctor’s supervision in a clinic , doesn’t restrict abortions, it just makes them safer.
Hagan is one of the few remaining statewide Democratic officeholders in a state that has a long tradition of Democratic governors, senators and legislatures. The 2012 Republican takeover marked the first time since the 1800s that the GOP has controlled all branches of the state government. And progressives have been galvanized by the state’s conservative tilt, with thousands mobilizing every Monday as part of “Moral Mondays,” protests that have led to several arrests. And even McCrory has been at odds with the more conservative legislature, a sign of North Carolina’s complicated and evolving politics.
“We see ourselves as a purple state, it tends to be quite competitive. There was a long time where Democrats controlled the legislature, the State House. But Republicans seem to have an advantage in the state, they have done very well. With redistricting they will likely do well for the next few years” said Kenneth E. Fernandez, political science professor and director of the Elon University Poll. “But not any one party has been dominant at the state level. At the presidential level, we had Reagan Democrats, who voted for Democrats at state level and Republicans nationally. Now we have Republicans at state level and Democrats being competitive at the national level.”
The challenge for Hagan in this toss-up race, is balancing that conservative strain with the progressive leanings of the Democratic base and finding a centrist note that resonates, particularly on abortion, a polarizing issue that has an galvanizing effect on partisans. There does appear to be a recent shift in attitudes about abortion in the state, however, that could make her task less complicated.
An April 2014 Elon poll found for the first time that a small plurality of North Carolina voters favor fewer restrictions on abortions rather than more, and a 5 percentage point decline in the percentage of voters who want to ban abortion. For women, 46 percent want less restriction, and 37 percent wanting more restriction–the gap in September 2013 was 2 percent.
“That’s going to be a tough call, how they decide to handle reproductive rights. They will probably never use the word ‘abortion.’ Maybe it’s just war on women, and that’s code for reproductive rights and equal pay,” Fernandez said. “For every voter you might convince to come out, you might push some away.”
One successful model that Planned Parenthood is looking at is the Virginia governor’s race, where they went in early and were able to expand their reach beyond women concerned about abortion restrictions, to women who also had concerns about restrictions to insurance coverage for birth control, often under the rubric of “women’s health.”
EMILY’s List’s new ad, seems to subtly get at the issue of “women’s health,” as well as the economy, by featuring a pregnant woman complaining about cuts to education, a field dominated by women (see the Fact Checker’s take on the ad here):
The Tillis campaign said that in the coming weeks, they plan to broaden their “Women for Tillis” coalition, as well as have a very strong push from Tillis’ wife, Susan Tillis, along with some high profile women vouching for the GOP candidate.
“We’ve got to do a better job communicating a message that female voters respond to and you do that by talking about the economy and family budgets and things that far left Democrats in Washington forget,” Shaw said. “Rather than have a rhetoric filled race using catchy phrases, we are going to talk about how the Obama-Reid-Hagan agenda has made it tougher for women across the country to find jobs, affordable health care, and educational options for their kids.”