In his ad for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, Republican House candidate Stewart Mills begins his spot decked out in hunting gear and ends with him wearing pink high heels.
“My husband Stewart is a guy’s guy,” says his wife, Heather Mills, as the ad cuts to video of Mills in the wilderness. “Every year he participates in the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, my husband puts on pink heels to raise money for victims of domestic violence.”
The ad, titled “In Her Shoes,” is the result of a project the National Republican Congressional Committee began last spring to encourage their candidates – both men and women – to reach out to women early in their campaigns. The directive is to get to voters before Democratic “war on women” attacks force GOP candidates to respond.
“It’s imperative that campaigns don’t wait until there is a problem, which is why you see our candidates proactively connecting with female voters, both on the campaign trail and in their television ads,” said Andrea Bozek, the NRCC communications director.
The project, which was done in partnership with the Republican National Committee, began with polling and focus groups to test which messages were working. Then came meetings, training sessions and conference calls with candidates and members of Congress to stress the importance of defining themselves with women, before Democrats have the chance to do it for them. The ads focus on issues like the economy, violence against women, sexual assault in the military and health care.
“Our goal is to ensure our campaigns have an aggressive plan to speak directly to women voters,” said NRCC Executive Director Liesl Hickey. “And they will be creating a clear contrast with their Democrat opponents highlighting our real solutions for health care, the economy and jobs, versus the Democrats failed, Washington one-size-fits-all approach.”
The Republican Party has dedicated time and resources to outreach before this midterm cycle to try to close the gender gap and confront the narrative Democrats have successfully used for at least two election cycles to peel women away.
“As a candidate, it’s important to come out early and enunciate their views where they hold things in common with women who are swing voters to let them know they can vote for a Republican candidate that they share a lot of things in common [with],” said Republican strategist Terry Nelson, who produced the Mills ad.
“We understand women have formed a key voting block for [Democrats] in a number of elections — they are going to go out and work to polarize this vote against Republicans and they are going to go early.”
Several of the ads released over the summer months feature candidates’ wives and tell a story about a person the candidate has helped or details about how their values would best suit the district.
“We know what the issue is, you’ve seen their playbook, so we would be stupid not to do something about it,” said Republican pollster Nicole McCleskey. “Because they are going to do the same thing in 2014.”
She added, “To not address it would be derelict on our part.”
At a meeting of Republican women last month, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, said GOP women must emphasize the message of “empowerment” and individual freedom, instead of expanding government.
Female Senate candidates, such as Republican Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, began responding to the “war on women” in April. Land’s ad “Really?” jabbed her opponent, Rep. Gary Peters (D), for saying Land wouldn’t represent women well.
But polling suggests they still have work to do.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more women still felt negatively toward the Republican Party, with 33 percent viewing it favorably and 62 percent unfavorably. In comparison, 54 percent of women polled said they viewed the Democratic Party favorably, while 40 percent said unfavorably.
Democratic lawmakers and candidates have spent the better part of this year criticizing Republicans who have opposed the minimum-wage increase push and equal-pay legislation.The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and liked-minded groups haven’t been shy about recycling attacks that have worked well in previous cycles – a petition on the DCCC’s Web site reads “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: TELL REPUBLICANS TO STOP THEIR WAR ON WOMEN.”
DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said Republican policies were the reason for the gender gap.
“They know that they have a glaring vulnerability with women based on the hostile policies they support,” he said. “They are trying to reduce that vulnerability, and the only way you reduce that vulnerability would be to change their policies and they refuse to do that.”