The Democratic strategy of achieving victory by courting single female voters had been going so well. “War on Women” messaging had been used to cruise to House, Senate, and presidential victories in 2010 and 2012. President Obama lost the married women vote in 2012 by seven points, but he won the single women vote by a stunning 36 percentage points. Women—so long as they stay single and don’t get married—are a key component of Democratic victories. With a cartoonishly compliant media serving as attack dog for every Republican error or otherwise helping push the message, Democrats and abortion-rights activists couldn’t conceive (definitely no pun intended) of a reason to change course. And in 2014, they had what they believed were some of their best candidates. Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis led a dramatic filibuster of a late-term abortion ban before deciding to run for governor of Texas. Sen. Mark Udall, reliable abortion rights supporter, built his entire campaign around an attempt to portray his opponent—the cheerful Cory Gardner—as an opponent of “women’s health” (the euphemism for abortion used by people who support the right to end the lives of unborn children). And the poster child of the entire War on Women movement—Sandra Fluke, the grad student who fought to force religious employers to provide contraception and abortifacients for free in employee benefit packages—tried to win a race for a California legislator position.
The Lessons Of Wendy Davis
Davis’ campaign could not have had more mainstream media support. After her filibuster of the late-term abortion ban, she was profiled and praised on nearly every major network and cable news outlet, in nearly every major political magazine, and throughout the websites and print editions of the country’s top newspapers. The profiles asked roughly zero tough questions of the candidate. The Washington Post, the newspaper that famously dismissed the arrest and subsequent murder trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell as a “local crime” story, couldn’t seem to stop finding new and varied reasons to cover Davis. One of my favorites was their story on the best Amazon reviews for the pink shoes Davis wore while trying to make sure women could procure late-term abortions for any reason. Her campaign was run in coordination with Battleground Texas, a political operation filled with Obama campaign veterans running the Obama playbook. Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, could not have worked harder with and for Davis, from the initial filibuster to the final moments. Democratic donors poured $38 million into the race and Planned Parenthood also spent heavily there, using every celebrity contact and media ally they had. Would the Obama campaign delivery system work for a nationally praised War on Women candidate? Well, here are some telling final paragraphs from a Texas Tribune story:
‘People often forget what the alternatives were,’ [Jeremy Bird, Battleground Texas’ senior adviser and the former national field director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign] said. ‘If she doesn’t run and we’re running no one at the top of the ticket, that certainly doesn’t help the long-term process.’
Speaking of no one: Jim Hogan, the Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, came into the race as a complete unknown. He didn’t spend a moment or a dollar campaigning. He received no direct support from Battleground. Yet he earned almost 37 percent of the vote in his race. Even with all her help, Davis ended the night with 39 percent of the vote.
In other words, all the Democratic and abortion rights money, friendly national media attention, and War on Women rhetoric and strategy got Davis two points above the base. Her old state senate seat, by the way, was won by a pro-life, Tea Party-aligned conservative woman.
Mark Udall, Empty Uterus
Sen. Mark Udall was supposed to win reelection easily and defeat Rep. Cory Gardner. Since Gardner had supported a piece of legislation that might have protected unborn children, the race was supposed to be run straight out of the War on Women playbook—a playbook that actually originated in Colorado in Michael Bennet’s 2010 race to defeat Ken Buck for the U.S. Senate. Perhaps the problem was that Udall ran nothing but that playbook. He was so mono-maniacally focused on empty uteruses that a debate moderator teased him about it, noting that he’d gotten the nickname Sen. Mark Uterus. Even donors complained about his bizarre obsession with wombs-with-no-babies. But the abortion rights crew didn’t relent. Easily the worst ad campaign of the cycle was one featuring a man explaining to a woman that a Sen. Gardner would create a world where condoms couldn’t be purchased. The inexplicably bizarre ad was like a Sandra Fluke fever dream come to life. But it ran until election day, according to reporters covering the race. Udall, who didn’t even break 46 percent of the vote, was ousted by Gardner.
Even Sandra Fluke
Sandra Fluke, the birth control activist, tried to turn her stint as the War on Women’s poster child into an actual political career. She campaigned for President Obama in 2012 as part of his centerpiece War on Women messaging, though never to large crowds. And she moved to California to run for the state legislature. Her opponent was another Democrat and he handily beat her by more than 20 points, even though she’d raised more than $1 million.
Kay Hagan, EMILY’s List
Mark Uterus/Udall got much of the attention for his radical War on Women campaign. But Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina also tried to characterize her opponent as an enemy in the war. Like Udall’s, her opponent also responded by noting that he actually thought birth control should be available over the counter without a prescription. Even with huge national get-out-the-vote operations and the support of the pro-choice group EMILY’s List, Hagan lost her race to Thom Tillis. It’s worth noting just how horribly Planned Parenthood responded to the news that the candidates they’d claimed were anti-birth control monsters in fact supported offering it over-the-counter. They fought it! As Ben Domenech pointed out, “It’s also certainly a total coincidence that birth control is a major lead generator for Planned Parenthood, to the degree that they can’t afford to lose their existing purpose as a source of prescribed contraception without it hurting their status as an institution.” Somehow it didn’t occur to the Planned Parenthood folks that opposing making birth control easier to get while claiming that’s what opponents are doing would kill the War on Women messaging.
It Gets Worse For Team War On Women
Two “personhood” amendments, controversial even among the most ardent pro-lifers, failed to pass in Colorado and North Dakota. And of course that’s precisely what the media focused on despite the fact that these initiatives don’t even gain the support of many pro-life activists. But here were a few other races and issues of interest to the War on Women crowd.
- Tennessee voters approved an amendment that allows lawmakers there to pass protections for unborn children and restrictions on abortion. The amendment passed despite tremendous spending and activism by abortion rights activists who fought it.
- The 2014 elections were great for women. It’s just that many of those women don’t fit the War on Women narrative. Take, for instance, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress: Mia Love. She’s pro-life. Or what about Iowa’s first female senator Joni Ernst? Pro-life Republican. The youngest woman ever elected to Congress is Elise Stefanik. Yes, she’s pro-life.
Here was one random tweet about these victories:
- When it comes to races that were lost, being strongly pro-life was not a factor. If anything, it might have been the opposite. Scott Brown, who lost the New Hampshire Senate race, certainly didn’t campaign as a pro-lifer.
- The flipped seats didn’t just go from Democrat to Republican but from pro-choice to pro-life. When Tom Cotton defeated Mark Pryor in his re-election attempt, Arkansas gained a pro-life senator.
- Pro-life stances helped Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas in their very tight bids for reelection.
- Pro-choice groups say the midterm election results mean the courts will move in a pro-life direction.
Planned Parenthood Spin Is Laughable
Elizabeth Plank, a senior editor at Mic, wrote an unintentionally hilarious and easily mocked piece “Wendy Davis Lost, But Here’s Why She Really Won.” And yet that’s exactly what Planned Parenthood tried to say to convince its allies in the media. Check out these hilarious tweets. Remember, when abortion activists use the phrase “women’s health,” they’re referring to abortion of children in the womb and/or birth control policies that don’t include over-the-counter availability:
One thing is clearer than ever: There’s a national consensus in favor of women’s health and rights.
Planned Parenthood (@PPact) November 5, 2014
Before you read this tweet, remember that Planned Parenthood could not have done more to help Udall and Davis and that both of these candidates lost. In Davis’ case, the woman who ran Planned Parenthood’s legislative filibuster lost by 20 points after spending $38 million.
Before reading this next tweet, remember that Planned Parenthood’s non-stop messaging throughout 2014 was that candidates were running on a platform to restrict women’s health and rights. This was what Planned Parenthood itself claimed day after day after day in its war on women messaging. (Radical abortion rights groups were so over-the-top in their messaging, in fact, that many people actually believed claims that Republican candidates were going to steal your birth control):
But above all: THANK YOU. Thanks to you, no candidate ran on a platform to restrict women’s health and rights. That’s important.
Planned Parenthood (@PPact) November 5, 2014
What a joke. Thanks to Republicans finally figuring out that their views on abortion were more mainstream than the views of abortion radicals, and finally figuring out how to showcase the disparity even with a hostile press, the War on Women strategy suffered humiliating losses this election year. Whether it was enough to drive a stake in the heart of this strategy is unclear. It probably wasn’t. But don’t let Planned Parenthood or its many allies in the media try to claim that this was actually a successful year for them. It wasn’t. It was an unquestionably decisive loss across the board. Democrats may need to keep women single to keep their vote, but they’ll have to work a bit harder to do it without losing even more of the remaining votes from everyone else in the years to come.
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