CHARLOTTE– What were midterm voters feeling? That would be concern about jobs and the economy and anxiety over Islamic terrorism and the Ebola virus creeping over American borders. A Democratic “war on women” message that helped Terry McAuliffe become Virginia’s governor in 2013 did not gain much traction with a 2014 electorate in a foul mood and ready to blame it on President Obama and a gridlocked Congress.
The gender gap was not wide enough to save Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, Bruce Braley in Iowa or incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Astute and well-financed campaigns honed a Republican message that worked spectacularly. And women who did show up at the polls let it be known that they hardly walk in gender lockstep on issues of education, the economy and abortion and choice.
“Every issue is a woman’s issues,” Ellie Hooper told She the People as she watched a Fox News broadcast in the election night headquarters for her candidate, Thom Tillis, in a ballroom at Charlotte’s Omni Hotel. The state House speaker would go on to win Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat in a race the nation had been watching. If Democrats hoped to hold onto the Senate majority, they had to win in North Carolina.
Hooper, 18, a freshman at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is in the single, young, female demographic the Democratic Party had tried to enlist with events such as a Hillary Clinton campaign rally for Hagan last month in Charlotte. However, “making sure our economy stays strong” was Hooper’s top priority, and she said she proudly cast her first vote for Tillis and Republicans on the ticket. “It was so exciting; I walked out of the polls on Cloud Nine.” Hooper said Tillis’s anti-abortion stance appealed to her. “It makes me want to support him, she said. “It’s important to stick to your morals.”
Sarah Bullins, an 18-year-old business administration major at N.C. State agreed. “Just because Hagan’s a woman, that’s not a reason to vote for her.” Bullins said a strong foreign policy was important to her, and she also approved of Tillis’s role in passing a strict voting law in the state legislature, a law being challenged in court by groups that contend it unfairly targets minorities, the poor and young voters. “It’s important to eliminate voter fraud,” Bullins said. “You want democracy to be pure.”
While EMILY’s List, a national political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates, threw its resources behind Hagan, Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the national antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List and Campaign for American Values PAC, supported Tillis with endorsements, ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. In a Tuesday statement, they said they had been on the ground in North Carolina since April and made nearly 400,000 voter contacts.
The group’s state director, Tami Fitzgerald of N.C. Values Coalition, said, “This ground campaign was a strategic decision to cut through the noise of television and radio ads. Our targeted voters were significantly impacted by our message outlining Senator Hagan’s extreme record on abortion.”
The SBA List and Women Speak Out PAC said it spent more than $1.9 million in North Carolina. Fitzgerald’s values coalition also released a list of state “pro-family judicial candidates” before Tuesday’s election that asked, “Are you mad that federal judges have overturned our marriage laws and forced same-sex marriage on North Carolina?” The state may be purple, but social issues still cut both ways with a divided electorate.
In a statement of prepared remarks for delivery at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and Women Speak Out PAC said: “The bottom has fallen out of the abortion-centered ‘war on women’ strategy. Why is that? Women just don’t agree with the shrinking ranks of the feminist left like EMILY’s List and NARAL that unlimited abortion is the great liberator for women.”
At the Tillis election night watch turned celebration, in a ballroom filled with red balloons and folks dressed in red, Linda Jones, who serves on the state Republican Party executive committee, said, “We worked so hard.” She rejected any notion of solidarity with the female candidate in the North Carolina Senate race. “Her values and the things she supports are not the things I hold dear.”
At the recent Hagan-Hillary Clinton rally that now seems long ago, many in the crowd warmed to the possible 2016 candidate’s policies on health care, choice and education, and yelled, “Run, Hillary!” When Clinton took the stage with Hagan, some parents lifted children to get a look at the woman many hoped would break the White House glass ceiling.
But appealing to a gender gap does not have much appeal to the women who cheered for Tillis on election night 2014. In two years, they no doubt will be looking elsewhere for their White House hopes.