Abortion, Guns and the Shelf-Life of Wedge Issues
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Abortion, Guns and the Shelf-Life of Wedge Issues

When the recall effort against two of the Colorado senators who passed restrictive gun control legislation heated up this year, liberal activists went to the playbook. Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado subtly described the two senators’ electoral opponents as “lifelong anti-choice, anti-women’s health advocates.” A TV ad from another group claimed they opposed “common forms of birth control” and wanted police to investigate miscarriages.

And why not? The phony “War on Women” did wonders for President Barack Obama. From the moment ABC News anchor George Stephanopolous asked Republican candidates if they thought states should be able to ban birth control, the media carried much of the Obama 2012 campaign’s water for shoring up female support.

As President Obama coasted to a 12-percentage-point victory among female voters, Democratic candidates throughout the country followed his lead, coming up with increasingly fantastical predictions about what a Republican candidate would do if elected. Female Republican voters wondered if or when Republican Party candidates would get out of their defensive crouch and begin to articulate conservative principles in a way that resonated with women and didn’t sound so apologetic. That challenge remains.

But here’s something worth noting. The “War on Women” scaremongering didn’t achieve the desired result in Colorado. From the Denver Post:

Opponents of an effort to recall two Democratic state senators for supporting stricter gun laws borrowed a page from an earlier playbook, arguing reproductive rights were in peril if the lawmakers were kicked out of office.

But the message — so effective in keeping Republican Ken Buck from becoming a U.S. senator in 2010 — failed to protect Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, who were recalled by their constituents Sept. 10.

If the “War on Women” messaging didn’t work in Pueblo, Colorado — an overwhelmingly Democratic district — on behalf of a female candidate, where does it work? And it’s not like Giron was recalled narrowly. She lost by 12 percentage points.

What Happened?

A lot happened. This was an irregular election, held in September, and without the use of mail-in ballots. The motivated voters were the ones pushing for recall. And then there’s the fact that the recalls happened in overwhelmingly Democratic strongholds populated by Roman Catholics. Planned Parenthood should have researched better whether Roman Catholic Democrats in Pueblo and Colorado Springs view protection of unborn children as a net positive or net negative. And Morse and Giron were vulnerable, both showing utter disdain for their constituents in recent years.

All that said, though, there are instructive reasons why the “War on Women” playbook failed in Colorado. One is that Colorado women aren’t like women nationally when it comes to gun rights.

Women nationwide are much more supportive of gun control than men. National Journal reported in April:

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 65 percent of women favor stronger gun laws, compared to 44 percent of men. That’s consistent with previous polling; a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 61 percent of women and 45 percent of men in favor stricter gun laws.

Americans are much more supportive of gun control in the abstract than they are actual proposals that restrict gun ownership or use. However, it’s clear that we have a huge gender gap on this issue. But while the gender gap also exists in Colorado, there’s a big difference. According to a Quinnipiac Poll of Colorado voters from August:

All voters oppose 54 – 40 percent the stricter new gun control laws which led to the recall effort. Democrats support the stricter laws 78 – 16 percent, while opposition is 89 – 7 percent among Republicans and 56 – 39 percent among independent voters. Women are divided on the stricter laws 48 – 45 percent, with men opposed 64 – 33 percent.

OK, so the gender gap is still there. But you see that Colorado women are very closely divided on the actual issue of whether governments should restrict 2nd Amendment rights. And many women in Colorado love exercising their 2nd Amendment freedoms. Gun shops, gun ranges and gun enthusiasts market toward women in Colorado. It’s not uncommon for a range to have special classes for women and to have those classes be well attended.

Women were also prominent in the battle against gun control legislation as well as the in favor of the recall effort. In fact, one of the more successful radio ads of the recall campaign featured a rape victim testifying in the legislature and asking Morse why she should be robbed of her right to defend herself. Other women’s groups deluged the airwaves talking about their right to choose how to defend themselves. The recall effort’s main public speaker was female.

Gun Rights And Women’s Rights

In other words, in Colorado, while gun control isn’t necessarily a women’s issue, gun rights is a women’s issue. This isn’t just in Colorado. Two thousand miles away, that’s what motivated Florida woman Barkha Herman to start HerRights.org, a group focused on free markets, school choice and gun rights. She explains why she started the group:

I feel very strongly that feminism has been overtaken by apologists for the left and what they’re pitching is not really women’s empowerment. Women like myself — a first-generation immigrant, career woman, wife and mother, small business owner — I feel like I’m not represented by modern feminism. I felt the need to create an organization that better represented someone like me. I wanted to illustrate that women’s issues are not all about birth control and abortion.

Herman, a self-described “Atheist, libertarian, computer scientist, Indian who enjoys cooking and entertaining,”  has already run three training courses for women interested in guns (a scene from one is pictured above). Imagine how offended she’d be by ads reducing her to her reproductive organs.

The Shelf Life of Wedge Issues

Here’s another thing that makes Colorado different. The Centennial State was one of the only states where Mitt Romney closed the gender gap. In fact, Romney won more support from women than men in Colorado. That’s part of a larger story about effective organization of female voters around a broad array of issues. But part of it is because Colorado Republicans had a two-year start on the “War on Women.” “The War on Women” was born in Colorado. It worked, contributing to Ken Buck’s defeat in a close election. After that, it was rolled out nationwide.

But three years, now, of being constantly reduced to nothing more than an empty womb is tiring. Women in Colorado became less and less receptive to hearing outlandish stories about how Republicans were monsters-go-boom-in-the-night. The belittling and condescending message lost its appeal. In a word, it became tiresome.

There’s a lesson in this for campaign strategists of all stripes. Wedge issues are effective manipulative tools for turning given elections. They’re less effective in the long run. Ask Karl Rove. His 2004 campaign for President George W. Bush included a Get Out The Vote effort capitalizing off of state-based efforts to retain traditional marriage. It worked for a time. Brilliantly so. Now it’s something of an albatross around Republican necks.

The “War on Women” works in the short-term. In the long-run, it requires a populace that views pregnancy as a disease instead of a blessing. It necessitates the constant stoking of grudges against men. And it only works if women are not allowed to have their own thoughts about guns, economic prosperity, education and every other challenge facing Americans. It only works if women aren’t considered full participants in the political process.

And more broadly, overhyping hot-button issues is a short-term electoral strategy that discourages both Republicans and Democrats from campaigning on substantive policy. Americans have many important problems to confront, and wedge issue politics are a distraction we can’t afford to indulge.

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