CHARLOTTE — Never let an opportunity go to waste. That has to be the thinking behind the Obama reelection campaign’s appeals to women in 2012 battleground states. North Carolina definitely falls into that category.
Now that a discussion about religious liberty and insurance coverage has turned into a debate over transvaginal ultrasounds, Democrats hope for gains among moderate and independent female voters and the widening of a gender gap that has traditionally favored their party. GOP wins in the 2010 midterms showed how essential those voters are to electoral success.
Mailings in North Carolina could not be any clearer as they list ways the new law is “preventing discrimination against women like you, banning insurance caps on needed care, keeping your kids covered until age 26.” They detail preventive services available with no co-pay, and provide a Web address for more details. It’s a campaign pegged to Women’s History Month, with women-to-women phone banks and house meetings to discuss specifics on how the Affordable Care Act has benefited communities across the state.
As part of the “Nurses for Obama” launch, Wanda Jenkins told reporters she planned to make calls, and with a group of nurses she is “going out and speaking to members of the community to talk about the Affordable Care Act” in Charlotte, where she is a school nurse at a pre-K-through-eighth-grade school.
In a call organized by Obama for America in North Carolina, Jenkins said that before she became a nurse, she had a job that didn’t offer insurance, but she didn’t qualify for Medicaid because of her income. “My son and I had to do without.”
Jenkins, who has also worked as a hospice and home care nurse, said she has “seen families struggle to save on premiums and prescriptions” and “children excluded from school because they do not have immunizations.” She framed health-care reform as a return to “fundamental” American values, “that we are our brothers’ keepers.”
On the other side, it’s not just national groups such as the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List fighting the narrative that the current debate pushes women toward Democratic candidates.
Claire J. Mahoney, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Republican Women, called the Democratic effort a “diversion,” a “classic bait and switch.” She said that Democrats create a problem, then “come in as a savior” and blame Republicans.
“It’s just been one big PR strategy, and it’s backfired on them,” Mahoney said. “I don’t think the effort will make a difference.” Mahoney said conservatives “don’t do identity politics, whether it’s women over here and the gays over there.”
In this case, she said it was about violating the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion, not women’s health. “From a conservative prospective, I don’t feel it’s empowering to demand that other women pay for my choices.”
“I think they are all side issues. To focus on those is to play their game, and I don’t play their game.” Mahoney, who said her group is 150 and growing, said that women and all Americans care about the economy. “That’s what people are talking about wherever I go.”
But unlike North Carolina’s Republican Sen. Richard Burr, Mahoney won’t predict a GOP November victory. “There’s a reason North Carolina is called a swing state.”
There is a lot of ground for Democrats to make up here. Since 2008, when Obama won the state by 14,000 votes and helped carry Gov. Bev Perdue into office, North Carolina has taken a conservative turn, with the general assembly in Republican control for the first time in a century after the 2010 midterms. Perdue, whose veto of a restrictive abortion bill was overturned, has announced she will not run for reelection.
Though the economy still matters most in the presidential contest and foreign policy crises give commander-in-chief policies priority, social issues remain an important part of the conversation. They are central to the message of GOP hopeful Rick Santorum, who after wins in Mississippi and Alabama is looking stronger.
Front-runner Mitt Romney — looking over his shoulder — aims to match his challenger’s socially conservative bona fides, making headlines with a Missouri sound bite — “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that” — on eliminating federal funding for the organization.
At the Charlotte convention, now more important than ever for Democratic hopes, one group planning a presence is the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), the multi-partisan, grass-roots group founded by Democrats and Republicans in 1971 with a goal of electing more women to office. A Sept. 2 NWPC reception, two days before the convention’s official start, will welcome supporters, elected women and candidates.
NWPC’s top issues — supporting a woman’s right to choose, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and dependent care for women balancing responsibility for children and aging relatives — have left it with few GOP candidates to endorse.
Program director Bettina Hager, who is 27 and single and has been with NWPC for a little over two years, said, “Women should be able to make decisions over their bodies.” Before she became involved in the organization, she said she thought that battle “had been fought and won.”
“We have Republicans in our mix,” Hager told me. “What we do is reach out to women of all parties.” She said they were looking forward to endorsing GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and were “really sad” when she decided to retire. “There are Republican women out there who believe in our issues,” she said. But right now, “it’s a very difficult place to be.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.