Women are McAuliffe’s advantage — and biggest challenge — in governor’s race


Whytni Kernodle walks home with her sons, Sawyer Frederick, 6, and Jackson Frederick, 8, after picking them up from Francis Scott Key School in Arlington on Oct. 10. (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
October 18, 2013

The urban neighborhoods and apartment complexes across the river from Washington are packed with thousands of well-educated women, many of whom work in the District and can easily discuss the new health-care law or the nuances of the recent government shutdown.

But when it comes to picking Virginia’s next governor — an election in which women have cemented Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli II, according to recent public polls — it’s sometimes difficult to find passionate, knowledgeable voters.

“I’m over it,” said Vanessa Olivar, 30, a lawyer still recovering from last year’s presidential election, when Virginia was a key battleground state. “Whenever a commercial comes on, usually I just roll my eyes.”

In May, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli were roughly tied in a Washington Post poll. Since then, McAuliffe has pulled ahead, thanks in large part to the growing support of women.

But the fact that women feel strongly about issues that separate McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, such as abortion and access to contraception, does not guarantee they will vote. To win, McAuliffe must draw women to the polls — especially younger women whose enthusiasm and sense of urgency in this race are sharply lower, according to polling results and brief interviews with more than 100 women living in Arlington’s youngest and most urban neighborhoods.

The gender gap in the Virginia governor’s race

Many of the women interviewed were so adamant in their disengagement that they declined to give their names.

“I’m so embarrassed, I don’t know anything,” said a 28-year-old woman who lives with her fiance in a condo in Clarendon and works in Maryland. “I guess we will vote.”

“I only vote with presidential elections,” said a 25-year-old high school biology teacher who grew up in Woodbridge and now lives just off Clarendon Boulevard. “I know this is a terrible mentality, but I don’t think it matters.”

“I can’t tell you anything about either of them,” said a stay-at-home mom as she pushed her 10-month-old in a swing at Lyon Village Park, nestled in a wealthy enclave. “That probably sounds really uneducated.”

A Washington Post- Abt SRBI poll in late September found that McAuliffe had a 25-point advantage among women voters.

Yet the poll revealed a divide along age lines: 45 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 49 were “absolutely certain” that they would vote in November, far less than the 72 percent of women over the age of 50. And far fewer young women are following the race closely — 55 percent versus 75 percent for older women.

That may help explain why McAuliffe is scheduled to appear Saturday with Hillary Rodham Clinton at a “Women for Terry” rally in Falls Church. He has also saturated the airwaves with frightening ads featuring female narrators accusing Cuccinelli of threatening women’s reproductive health.

Young women voters are “harder to find and harder to motivate to get to the polls,” said Margaret Tseng, an associate politics professor at Marymount University in Arlington. “But fear is a good motivator. . . . The ads have definitely caused women to question what might happen to their reproductive rights if Cuccinelli becomes Virginia governor.”

Cuccinelli is opposed to abortion in nearly all cases, even when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. As a state senator from 2002 to 2010, he co-sponsored a “personhood bill” that would have given fertilized eggs constitutional rights, which some argue would have banned abortion and some types of birth control.

As the state’s attorney general, Cuccinelli has pressured state health officials to crack down on women’s health clinics that offer abortions, enforcing standards that often don’t apply to other health facilities.

Such stances scare Whytni Kernodle, 40, a lawyer who has lived in Northern Virginia for eight years but didn’t feel like a Virginian until more recently. She and her husband live near the Courthouse Metro and send their two young sons to Key Elementary. This election has her fired up like none before.

“Literally, a horse could be running against this man, and I would vote for the horse,” she said. “There is no way this man could be my governor. He is extreme. His views are very antiquated.”

McAuliffe seems to have understood from the start that women could hold outsize importance in a contest against Cuccinelli. When he decided to run for governor, one of his first calls was to Planned Parenthood’s political advocacy groups, said the organization’s president, Cecile Richards.

Planned Parenthood advocates and other Democratic activists were already active in Virginia, fighting conservative lawmakers who proposed requiring women to undergo an invasive procedure known as a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion or to file a police report if their pregnancy ends early, even in miscarriage. In this election, the group’s mantra has been “Keep Ken Out.”

Cuccinelli’s campaign has struggled to counter the attacks related to abortion because the candidate is so firm in his beliefs. But in recent weeks, he has projected a softer side as a dedicated family man who once helped exonerate a man wrongly accused of rape and fought the sexual exploitation of children.

His campaign has, meanwhile, run an ad showing McAuliffe wearing a casual Hawaiian shirt and appearing to drink a shot of liquor while the words “uninformed,” “superficial” and “flamboyant” flash on the screen.

McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, wrote in his autobiography, “What a Party!”, that he once left his wife in labor at the hospital to attend a party with reporters. Following the birth of another child, McAuliffe stopped at a fundraiser on the way home from the hospital, leaving his wife and newborn in the car.

“I felt bad for Dorothy,” McAuliffe wrote, “but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party.”

Cuccinelli certainly has not lost all women voters; 35 percent of women polled by The Post in September said they supported the Republican. Among Republican-leaning women who are likely to vote, 85 percent planned to vote for Cuccinelli.

“I don’t think that being anti-abortion is being anti-woman,” said Andrea Gagliardi, 25, who lives in an Arlington high-rise apartment complex and is looking for a job. “It’s such an important issue to him that if he backed off, he would look insecure. You need to stick with your morals. It’s not just about winning an election.”

Still, few swaths of Virginia exhibit both McAuliffe’s advantages and challenges with women like Arlington’s 22201 Zip code, home to the Orange Line’s Clarendon and Courthouse Metro stations and more than 33,450 people. The population is young, with more than half of residents between the ages of 20 and 34.

Dozens of young women living in the area said in interviews that they are not registered to vote in Virginia, instead keeping their votes in states where they grew up, attended college or feel a deeper connection. Many others said they have yet to research the candidates and were unsure if they would vote.

The challenge of engaging younger women is maddening to members of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women, which has fought for reproductive rights for decades. A handful of members gathered in Arlington earlier this month and pondered how to reach young women voters.

These young women often live in high-rises with locked entrances that can be difficult for canvassers to infiltrate. They frequently move. They have cellphones but not land lines. They watch television shows online or fast-forward through campaign commercials. They stream music instead of listening to the radio.

And traditional messages don’t always work. Val Dutton of Vienna told the group about her family’s 25-year-old former babysitter who read a letter that Dutton had composed about the Republicans’ “war on women.”

“She thought it was too in-your-face, too extreme,” said Dutton, 52. “She said that those reading it might be offended, they might be turned off.”

The other women were baffled.

“Did she think it was too Rachel Maddow?” said Marjorie Signer, 70, referencing the fiery MSNBC host.

“I feel like Rachel Maddow is pretty calm compared to what I feel,” said Virginia NOW President Diana Egozcue, 65.

There’s a generational difference here, but the women struggled to define it.

“Is it because we are moms, and we don’t want our kids to have to deal with this? Or maybe we just have more time to fight?” said Belva Hayden, 47, of McLean. “Or maybe they have just grown up in this world where they don’t think they have to worry about this?”

The group ordered 25,000 postcards to send to women between the ages of 25 and 40, especially those living in apartments in Arlington and Alexandria. The cards read: “Women’s votes will decide the future. If you don’t want politicians in your bedroom . . . If you don’t want birth control to be illegal . . . If you want good jobs and equal pay . . . Vote for candidates who trust women and will safeguard our rights.”

“It’s the women of Northern Virginia who will make the difference,” Signer said. “This is a target group for us. We really need to get them.”

Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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