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GOP tries pushing back against “war on women” rhetoric

Two different and competing faces of the GOP have been on display this week as the Republican National Committee hosted its annual winter meeting.

One was former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who stepped into the contraception debate when he suggested that Democrats pander to women “by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

Republicans quickly went into clean-up mode, with Chairman Reince Priebus, calling the statement “goofy,” and saying he would not have used the same phrasing.

And, for their part, Democrats, recognizing the rhetorical gift, quickly went into “war on women” and fundraising mode, casting the comment as just the latest example of Republicans just not getting it when it comes to women.

But just as Huckabee was wrapping up his comments, a group of GOP “Rising Stars” was beginning to gather in a separate room at the Renaissance hotel in downtown Washington, the site of the annual meeting.

And underscoring just how badly the GOP wants to present a new face of their party,  all of the rising stars were women.

“The rising stars program is something that we started a year ago,” Preibus said as he introduced the five women.  “It is part of our effort…our formal effort to have different people and to train different people to start speaking for our party.”

They are:

Chelsi Henry, cabinet aide to the chief financial officer of Florida, and an African-American;

Alison Howard, who is white, and is a conservative activist and communications director for Concerned Women for America;

Alex Smith, who is white and is national chair of the College Republican National Committee, the first woman to hold that position;

Kimberly Yee, an Asian American who is an Arizona state senator; and

Monica Youngblood, an African-American who is a New Mexico state representative.

The five women, from key swing states, represent all of the demographics that Republicans have struggled with — women, young voters, African Americans and Asian Americans. And each had the same message when it came to reaching a wider spectrum of voters: The GOP has to show up.

“Right now, there is an opportunity to reach out to women, they are making the majority of health care decisions,” said Howard, who speaks regularly on pro-life and pro-family issues. “We have to talk to women as the smart, purpose-driven women they are.  Pandering to us for a vote is so easy to see.”

RNC leaders delayed the start of the meeting this week so that they could march alongside activists in the annual March for Life rally, signaling that the party is embracing and highlighting their stance on abortion, which has been taken up by state legislatures across the country.

It’s an issue that the GOP thinks they can run on, and increasingly they want to look to women to carry this message.

Yee, who sponsored an ultrasound bill in Arizona and a measure, since overturned, that  would ban abortions at 20 weeks, said Republicans should highlight their efforts around abortion.

“The pro-life legislation is the most meaningful to me.  As a woman, as the new mother of a four-month-old, those are the things that I share when I go out into my community and I talk to moms and their families,” said Yee.  “As a woman, I really feel that we have to share that story.”

Democrats have outpaced Republicans in attracting women voters, most notably in 2012 when Obama beat Romney by double digits.  The so-called “war on women” has been an effective catchall for a partisan fight that Republicans are struggling to push back on, even as they suggest it’s much ado about nothing.

“What war on women? That just political rhetoric,” said Henry, who said her experience growing up as a child on welfare led her to the Republican party. “We are for women. Women being in leadership.  Susana Martinez and Nikki Hale.  Let’s highlight the fact that they are in office.  What do our results show?”

Next week, Republicans will highlight another rising star–Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash), the highest ranking woman in the GOP-controlled House, who will deliver the rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

“I love that Cathy McMorris Rodgers is giving the response and I think women will really respond to her message and her story,” said Katie Packer Gage, who launched a consulting firm called Burning Glass that seeks to help Republican craft a better message to women voters. “I do think there is a message that Republicans can share that women can relate to, but if you have to break through the Huckabee comments, it’s very hard,”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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