By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
With just five weeks to go until Election Day, the race for Virginia governor between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell has largely become a battle for female voters that is playing out in TV commercials, campaign appearances and women-focused events.
On Tuesday, Deeds launched a TV ad attacking McDonnell's views on working women, citing the Republican's 20-year-old graduate school thesis, in which he says working women are "detrimental to the family." Over the weekend, the Deeds campaign started a series of Oprah-style book clubs to bring women together to talk about the thesis and other aspects of the race.
McDonnell is airing a spot featuring his eldest daughter, Jeanine, an Iraq war veteran whom he often mentions as an example of his support for working women. His wife, Maureen, appeared on the campaign trail Saturday to defend his attitudes toward women, and his pink "Women for McDonnell" T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers have become ubiquitous at his events.
The strategy shift for both campaigns began late last month after The Washington Post disclosed McDonnell's controversial thesis, and it accelerated as polls showed that female voters were souring on McDonnell. In the thesis, the former state delegate and attorney general also decried Supreme Court decisions expanding access to birth control and labeled feminism among the "real enemies of the traditional family." Since its publication, McDonnell has said that he supports women in the workplace and that some of his views have changed.
For both candidates, targeting women carries risk. For Deeds, the focus on McDonnell's thesis could frustrate voters who are eager to learn more about the state senator from rural Bath County. The Democrat has at times struggled to explain his positions and connect with voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, where he will have to do well to win. McDonnell, who is diverting time and resources to defend himself, risks losing control of a campaign in which polls show he holds an advantage on jobs, the economy, transportation and other issues. Both risk losing the support of women, who account for 54 percent of registered voters in Virginia, if their appeals are seen as condescending.
Since the 1980s, as women have entered the workplace in increasing numbers and taken on greater financial responsibility for their families, they have made up an increasing proportion of the electorate. Electoral results show a wide gender gap, with women typically more supportive of Democratic candidates and their advocacy for such issues as education and social services.
In Virginia, women make up a larger percentage of the electorate than men and have consistently been more supportive of Democratic candidates. The sharpest contrast in recent history came in 2006, when 55 percent of women voted for James Webb (D) over George Allen (R) for U.S. Senate, compared with 45 percent of men.
Many Northern Virginia women said in interviews that they engage in politics more than ever before -- at work, at the dinner table and even at neighborhood get-togethers. They say it is partly the result of last year's history-making presidential campaign, which featured two prominent female candidates, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who sought the White House, and Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee. But they also say the enduring recession has highlighted the importance of women's economic contributions to the family and in some cases has turned them into primary breadwinners.
"I think women have found their voice," said Staci Kapinos, 35, a stay-at-home mother from Ashburn, adding that politics in recent years has become a staple of her street's monthly ladies potluck. "Women are more confident in their beliefs. They had their opinions, but they wouldn't be the first ones to speak. Now, I don't see anybody waiting."
Kapinos, a Republican who is leaning toward voting for McDonnell, said the thesis will not sway her vote. Others said it will.
"People are just struggling to make their bills; husbands get laid off," said Erika Hodell-Cotti, 36, a telecommunications worker and mother from Ashburn. "The ideologies of candidates and how they think become incredibly important. Those social issues that we talk about, those thoughts hit home to a lot of women."
Heather Bates, 45, who leaned Republican most of her life and voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president last year, quit her job as an accountant to stay at home with her two children. Still, the views in McDonnell's thesis struck her as outdated and restrictive. "It was like, Eek! Pull back. Pull way back," she said. "I was leaning toward Deeds, but I had not made up my mind until that."
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said Tuesday that the campaign isn't targeting women more than planned because of the thesis. "Women for McDonnell" has been building organizations in every city and county since spring, he said. Jeanine McDonnell introduced her dad at the GOP state convention and his kickoff in March and always planned to play a big role this fall.
"We've had those signs made for months," Martin said. "We will respond to attacks on Bob McDonnell on any issue, and we'll respond to inaccuracies and falsehoods our opponent puts out there. But our effort to attract women voters has been full and comprehensive and going back long before Creigh Deeds became the Democratic nominee."
The Deeds campaign is stepping up its focus on the thesis because, senior staffers said, the more women who become aware of it, the less they like McDonnell. "When women are given materials and they actually read what he wrote, they didn't go back," said Monica Dixon, a senior strategist for Deeds. "It changed how they viewed McDonnell as a candidate."
The direct appeals to women aren't the only focal points of the campaign. McDonnell and other Republicans have seized on Deeds's willingness to raise taxes to fund transportation fixes and have sought to make that a major issue. The Republican is airing an ad on that issue, as well as one on jobs. McDonnell also introduced a good-government policy proposal Monday, and both candidates recently published position papers on how to pay for the state's transportation needs. The economy, jobs, transportation and taxes continue to register as voters' top concerns in polls. Martin, McDonnell's spokesman, said the candidate's efforts to focus on jobs and the economy should please female voters as much as male ones.
Still, there is little disagreement among Republicans or Democrats that the thesis has changed the election, particularly among women. In a Post poll published Sept. 20, Deeds gained 10 points almost exclusively because of increased support from independent women. Last month, independent women favored McDonnell 59 to 31 percent; in the more recent poll, they split 50 percent for Deeds to 47 percent for McDonnell.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said that after such a big swing, he doubts Deeds will gain much more ground with women -- and he could risk losing support by not talking about other issues. But Sabato also criticized McDonnell for not more forcefully repudiating some of the more controversial pieces of the paper.
"He's danced around it," Sabato said. "You've had the formulations in the paper: 'Well, that was a long time ago,' and 'Here's my daughter.' He hasn't said, 'I don't believe that working women hurt the family.' He has to repudiate it, and he hasn't because he's worried about offending the social conservatives who still believe that."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.