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Democrats try to woo women as more embrace GOP candidates

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 3:42 PM

In the final stretch before the midterms, President Obama is giving a lot of attention to the traditional Democratic base: young people, black voters and white women.

But women are his most urgent target. Unlike the other core groups, women are undecided, rather than merely unmotivated. And there are signs in parts of the country that they are open to defecting to the Republicans, potentially defying the long-standing "gender gap" that has skewed heavily toward Democratic candidates.

In the highly competitive Colorado Senate race, women are divided almost evenly between Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger, Ken Buck. In Missouri, female voters are not giving any measurable boost to Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan, who is trailing Republican Rep. Roy Blunt. And in New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte is actually ahead among women by 10 percentage points, one of several factors in her lead overall.

In the House races, where women have sided with Democrats by an average of nine points since 1976, they are now about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. That is a sharp drop-off from just four years ago, when women chose Democrats by a large 12-point margin and put them in the majority.

Of course, the news is not good for Democrats almost everywhere - and certainly much worse among white men, who are embracing Republican candidates by a greater proportion than ever before. But the women matter more: As a whole, men lean Republican, while women usually act as a counterbalance for Democrats.

"Women are not a shrinking piece of the electorate. They're a shrinking piece of the Democratic pie," Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said, refuting the notion that female voters are simply unmotivated like the rest of the Democratic base. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said Democrats are seeing an erosion with women who did not attend college, especially because of the economy.

"They do not think the administration's economic policies are working for their families, and worry about the priorities of this administration, and wonder if they get it," Lake said.

To counteract the trend, Democrats have released a torrent of gender-based negative ads in recent weeks - attacking male Republican House candidates for bad behavior, underscoring Republican candidates' opposition to legalized abortion and other women's health issues, and, in the Kentucky Senate race, airing an ad that asks, among other things: "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up?"

The White House is also stepping in.

On Thursday, President Obama will hold an official event in Seattle targeting women on economic issues, before campaigning with Sen. Patty Murray, who has had an advantage among women voters since first being elected in 1992 as a "mom in tennis shoes." Obama is also sending out senior female members of the administration to talk about economic matters, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. The idea, she said, is to remind female voters that "there are millions of women who've benefited" from Obama's small business programs, with more benefits on the way from a new consumer protection agency and health-care reform. First lady Michelle Obama's recent foray onto the campaign trail has been aimed at women as well.

Democrats argue that the gender gap in their favor isn't disappearing but simply becoming less of a sure thing. Although it has failed to rescue Senate candidates in Missouri, New Hampshire or Wisconsin so far, it is still holding strong for Murray in Washington, as well as for Gov. Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Chris Coons in Delaware. In Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is locked in a close race with Republican challenger Sharron Angle, there is a Democratic advantage among female voters, albeit not as pronounced as it has been in the past.

"The firewall that was six feet high is now four feet high," Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which has conducted polling in Nevada and elsewhere, said. "[Democrats] still do better with women than Republicans do, but the gap between what Republicans and Democrats get with women has narrowed in favor of Republicans."

The influx of Republican female candidates this year appears to be tipping the scales in some races, though not in others.

In the past few decades, more women voted reliably for Democrats regardless of whether a female Republican was on the ballot - a trend that held true all the way through the 2008 presidential race. And some women this year, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, are not luring women voters across the aisle. A recent Time/CNN/Opinion Research poll showed O'Donnell down 27 points among women compared with Coons, her male Democratic opponent.

Yet in New Hampshire, Ayotte's lead among women - while not as large as her lead among men - defies the usual trend.

"What we're seeing is that Ayotte is able to eliminate that typical pro-Democratic gender gap. And the gender gap among men is magnified," Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire said. In the most recent UNH polling, Ayotte leads Hodes by five points, 43 to 38, among women, and by 27 points, 58 to 31, among men.

Smith credits Sarah Palin - who endorsed Ayotte in the primary - with helping shift a decades-old dynamic. Where suburban women were a core part of the Republican party in the 1960s and '70s, they shifted to the Democratic party in the 1980s and 90s, and have been a core part of the Democratic base ever since.

"Republicans kind of wrote them off and didn't really bother to actively recruit women as voters because they figured they would vote Democrat anyway," Smith said. "What Palin has done is to say that women wouldn't necessarily vote for a Democrat, and might vote for a woman Republican."

Democrats don't entirely disagree. "What is striking is there are some places in this political climate that the gender gap looks like it always does - where you've got massive advantages for Democrats among female voters," one veteran Democratic strategist said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to be candid about races where Democrats are faring poorly.

"But then there are other races where, unexpectedly, there's much less of a gender gap. If you are getting competing conflicting contradictory reads on it, that is probably an accurate portrayal of the gender gap this cycle."

Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson and Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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