The trend that worries conservative thinker Sabrina Schaeffer is this: Three elections ago, nearly half of all working mothers chose George W. Bush. In 2008, the share dropped to 40 percent for Sen. John McCain. By 2012, only about a third backed Mitt Romney.
But even more alarming to Schaeffer is that few, if any, of the current presidential candidates have made the needs of female breadwinners a centerpiece of their campaigns.
“For years now, Democrats have been saying: We are focused on women in the workplace,” said Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes conservative policies. “For whatever reason, Republicans keep ignoring these issues. It’s the absolute worst thing they can do. They need to understand, engage and offer better solutions. They can’t be afraid.”
Schaeffer is among a chorus of conservatives who have grown frustrated — and increasingly vocal — about the lack of proposals from GOP candidates that could help reverse this exodus of swing voters from the party.
These conservatives say Republicans have an opportunity to exploit new proposals in Washington that have been embraced by influential right-wing policymakers and economists.
But some Republican strategists say that many of the candidates are planning to wait until after the primary to take up such ideas, so as to not prematurely alienate social conservatives who think families are better off when one parent stays home. That has dismayed some in the party who view the matter as urgent, especially with Hillary Rodham Clinton looming as the likely Democratic nominee.
“Every parent who works has been through the day-care nightmare,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was the senior economic policy adviser to McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 election. “This has been underappreciated by Republican candidates in part and conservatives in general. They think this stuff is automatic.”
Although several of the Republican candidates have long supported expanding the child tax credit, some conservative women leaders say that idea may not be enough to compete with Democrats.
Right-leaning policymakers have been floating other proposals. An economist at the American Enterprise Institute has recommended allowing pregnant workers to claim part of their tax refund early to fund their maternity leave. A Heritage Foundation economist has proposed loosening labor regulations so parents can easily swap overtime pay for compensation days. Others are advocating for over-the-counter birth control.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) wants to reward companies with a 25-cent tax credit for every dollar spent on its employees’ family or medical leave.
“The public is watching,” Fischer told a gathering of conservative economists, pundits and strategists earlier this month. “If we leave this narrative to our friends on the left, we don’t stand a chance.”
Such ideas are emerging as the economic challenges facing working women and mothers are mounting.
Women financially support 40 percent of all households in the United States, the Pew Research Center recently found, compared with 11 percent in 1960. Out-of-pocket spending on child care has nearly doubled over the last 30 years, according to the Census Bureau. The average cost of infant care now exceeds the price of public college tuition in
In Virginia, for example, a critical swing state, the average cost of full-time day care runs about $10,000 per year. The price swells in cities: Parents should expect to pay $22,000 annually in the District, according for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Only 13 percent of American workers, meanwhile, have access to paid family leave or time away from work to recover from a pregnancy and bond with a newborn, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
“As a general matter, women are really busy,” said Kate O’Beirne, policy adviser to the Conservative Reform Network and former president of the National Review Institute. “They’re always juggling and prioritizing. You’ve got to get their attention by talking about concrete ways to help.”
So far, no Republican candidate seems to have done so, said Ainsley Stapleton, a 38-year-old accountant in Arlington, Va., who describes herself as a fiscal conservative. A mother of three young children, Stapleton said she spends about $2,000 each month on day care, a cost that nearly matches her mortgage payment.
“Republicans, on a federal level, don’t look too much at working women, period,” she said. “If someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio came up with a feasible plan to make child care cheaper, they’d win my vote.”
Working mothers were 12 percent of the 2012 electorate, according to a national exit poll by Edison Media Research. That share, which has remained steady since 2004, will likely grow, based on historic voting patterns — women typically outnumber men at the polls — and the changing work climate, analysts say.
Clinton is already cranking up the pressure on this front on the campaign trail, condemning the country’s lack of paid maternity leave, maternal wage gap and dearth of affordable day-care options. Strategists on both sides of the political spectrum soon expect her to unveil a policy agenda appealing to working mothers.
It’s not that Republicans don’t want to help women. They would rather help women the conservative way, some GOP strategists said.
Politicians should not focus on one group, the strategists argued, but the country as a whole. After all, if the economy flourishes, everyone prospers. Other Republicans say considerations for working women should be balanced against the needs of small businesses, as well as other economic concerns.
Conservative economists tend to fear the unintended consequences of “one-size-fits-all” policies, said Katie Packer Gage, who co-founded Burning Glass, a political consulting firm that aims to help politicians connect with female voters.
“The more Republican position is: There is only so much employers can bear before they stop hiring people and before the economy starts to suffer,” said Gage, a former Romney strategist. “Democrats are always going to hand out more tax dollars. But what is the breaking point?”
Only a few Republican presidential candidates so far have rallied for workplace policy changes. Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, announced last week an agenda that includes reducing government regulations on small business to aid female entrepreneurs as well as over-the-counter birth control to quash, she said, “out-of-
“For too long, the left has controlled this conversation,” she said on a press call. “I think we need to have a conversation that’s both honest about how women are treated today and offers policy prescriptions to lift both women and men up.”
In March, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio proposed with fellow Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) a $2,500-per-child tax credit, which would come in addition to existing tax breaks for families. A parent whose payroll tax burden is less than the value of the credit, however, would not qualify for the full amount.
Other candidates say that it will only be a matter of time before they deliver speeches on the concerns of women.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who earlier this month announced his second presidential bid, will soon present a policy agenda to lift the American worker, both men and women, said policy adviser Abby McCloskey, declining to elaborate.
McCloskey, a former director of economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said she supports reforming child and dependent tax credits to help low-
income mothers stay in the workforce.
“It needs to be part of the conversation when we talk about opportunity for all and economic mobility,” said McCloskey, who works from her home in Dallas and is eight months pregnant. But, she added, these are “not solely women’s issues.”
Meanwhile, conservative researchers have been peddling plans to Republican campaigns.
The American Enterprise Institute has been promoting a proposal from one of its economists, Aparna Mathur, who had the idea to fund maternity leave through existing tax credits. Under that plan, a pregnant worker could claim part of her tax refund in the days before taking an unpaid leave; her employer would have to agree to shoulder administrative costs of the request.
“We need sensible reforms like this that would appeal to both sides,” Mathur said. “It’s not about identity politics or gender politics. This is about real issues we are all facing.”
Political consultant Mindy Finn, a former Romney campaign strategist, recently launched Empowered Women, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help a “new generation” of women succeed in America.
Working mothers, she said, crave policies that promote choice and flexibility. For Finn, the mission is personal.
Three years ago, during her first maternity leave, the former Twitter executive itched to work remotely at home — “we have the technology,” she said — but labor laws made it tricky. “It didn’t make sense for me,” she said, “and it doesn’t make sense for so many mothers who’d rather decide what’s best for them.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer Higgins, a founder of RightNOW Women Pac, is also working on a leave agenda — “not paid leave,” she said, “because that’s a non-starter” — to support more working mothers without increasing federal regulation.
“There is a real opportunity,” Higgins said. “I can tell from dialogue over the last six months with Republicans on the Hill. They want to tackle these issues in a thoughtful way and also reach that demographic.”
So far, Republican candidates might be staying silent on work-life balance partly because “anything we offer, the Democrats will offer 10 times that,” said Holtz-Eakin, the McCain adviser who is now the president of the American Action Forum policy institute.
But Republicans should speak up on the issue soon, he said, given the results of the last two elections. Asked how McCain reached female earners, Holtz-Eakin replied with a bitter laugh: “We didn’t! We lost!”