Two playbooks for defending against the ‘war on women’
A year after President Obama rode to reelection accusing Republicans of a war on women, the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia offered the GOP two options for how to strike back.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie easily defeated a female state senator by staying away from hot-button social issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage, and by earning strong support among women for his leadership after Superstorm Sandy.
Further south, however, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II struggled with female voters as he fought to overcome a socially conservative record that Vice President Joseph R. Biden, campaigning for Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, summed up as “from another era.” One ad running this past week in the Northern Virginia market accused Mr. Cuccinelli of wanting to outlaw contraception, one of a series of attack ads that helped Mr. McAuliffe edge out Mr. Cuccinelli at the ballot box.
“One of the key planks in the Democrats’ ‘win at all costs’ playbook is the ‘ war on women’ maneuver,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “While both Cuccinelli and Christie are pro-life, only Cuccinelli fell headlong into this hyper-emotional trap. Christie’s strong favorability with female voters is a testament to his understanding the importance of tone, rhetoric, outreach and personal favorability when conveying one’s views. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, is a textbook example of how not to handle the [Democrats’] propaganda slime.”
Exit polls in Virginia, meanwhile, showed that Mr. Cuccinelli may have benefited from the blowback against Obamacare, with 48 percent of voters saying they support it and 50 percent saying they oppose it.
Heading into Tuesday, polls showed just how different the two races were. A Quinnipiac University Poll of New Jersey voters found Mr. Christie winning support of 57 percent of women over state Sen. Barbara Buono. In Virginia, Mr. Cuccinelli was supported by 36 percent of women.
Part of the reason for the difference was opportunity.
Democrats never saw the New Jersey race as particularly winnable, so the national party didn’t make much of an effort on Ms. Buono’s behalf.
Virginia presented another story. Governors are limited to one term, so Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, couldn’t run again, leaving no incumbent. Mr. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, proved to be an outstanding fundraiser, allowing him to flood the state with ads attacking Mr. Cuccinelli’s views on social issues.
“Cuccinelli has been buried in an avalanche of negative cash,” Republican strategist Mike McKenna said. “I think when all is said and done he will have been outspent around 2-to-1. Much of that cash has been directed at women, some of whom have gotten four or five mailings and phone calls each day.”
Four years ago, Mr. McDonnell, a social conservative and former attorney general who made his mark championing prolife legislation during his time in the state legislature, played down social issues and focused on jobs and the economy during a deep economic slump.
Mr. Cuccinelli wasn’t able to achieve the same recalibration.
“Cuccinelli came to the party nomination as a hero to an ideological fringe and he was never able to reposition himself as a benign conservative the way that McDonnell did four years ago,” said Mark Rozell, acting dean and professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Republicans emerged from 2012 election losses nationwide pointing to failures to connect with female, minority and young voters.
Presidential nominee Mitt Romney regularly had to fend off attacks that he was antiwoman, but struggled to take positions on legislation such as the Fair Pay Act. At one point, Mr. Romney tried to rebut the charges by talking about the “binders full of women” he had when he was Massachusetts governor and was trying to staff his administration. The remark was widely lampooned.
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for governor, talks to voters at the Atlee High School voting place in Hanover on Tuesday.