The Magazine

Women and the GOP

No problem.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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In early November, Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida accused House Republicans of giving women "back-of-the-hand treatment" during a parliamentary dust-up over a health care debate.

Her ridiculous rhetoric, about what amounted to a heated argument, happened to coincide with the media blitz of newly ordained press darling Dede Scozzafava, playing the role of mistreated moderate woman ousted from the Republican party by rabid conservatives because of her views on social issues.

And thus a storyline was born. The Politico's coverage led the way, under the headline, "The GOP's women problem":

Conservatives say they pushed Dede Scozzafava out of the House race in New York's 23rd District a week ago because of her left-of-Republican social views--and not because she is a woman. But the growing schism between the Republican party's ascendant right wing and its shrinking moderate core has clear gender undertones.

When did you stop beating your promising, reasonable, moderate female candidates? Hmm?

The storyline relies on a misunderstanding of Scozzafava, willful ignorance of the recent behavior of women voters, and denial of the GOP's 2010 candidate field.

Scozzafava's ouster had little to do with her sex and a lot to do with the fact that she was a "moderate" Republican only if you believe "moderates" are endorsed by Markos Zuniga of Daily Kos, support card-check and the stimulus, work closely with ACORN-entangled liberal advocacy groups, and are funded primarily by Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union.

Scozzafava is far from the model for reasonable, moderate Republican women. She's the kind of woman who calls the cops on a reporter for asking her policy questions. But she's the woman liberals wish represented Republicans--because she's a liberal herself, which is why she became an improbable fetish of the Fourth Estate.

If the media had cared to look beyond the fluky, three-way race in NY-23 for national implications, they could have considered women voters in battleground Virginia.

On November 3, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell won women by eight points, 54-46, against Democrat Creigh Deeds. A year before, Obama had won women by seven points; in his historic campaign to turn the state blue, he relied largely on the educated, affluent, suburban vote McDonnell would recover for the GOP. This information was obscured under the CNN headline, "Male, rural, suburban votes boost McDonnell."

McDonnell's edge among women--27 points among white women--is all the more astonishing given the particular line of attack Deeds employed throughout the campaign, with the help of his devoted oppo researchers at the Washington Post.

When the Post discovered a thesis McDonnell wrote at evangelical Regent University in 1989, the attack was on. In the thesis, McDonnell had controversial takes on working women (federal tax credits for child care were "detrimental to the family"), contraception outside of marriage, and marriage (government policies should favor traditional families and make divorce more difficult).

McDonnell released a statement saying his views had changed. He pointed out that his record in government did not jibe with the '89 policy prescriptions, and lauded his working wife and two daughters, one of whom served in Iraq as a platoon leader in 2005. Then he moved on.

The Post and Deeds didn't. A Northern Virginia paper, the News and Messenger, accused Deeds of making "McDonnell's thesis the main talking point of his campaign, almost to the exclusion of anything else." His ads leaned heavily on it, culminating in "Why Did You?"--a parodic parade of women pleading with the camera and McDonnell, "Why? Why? WHY?"

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie lost women by 5 points, but shrunk McCain's '08 losing margin by 12 points.

The exit polls reveal a model for speaking to women voters in 2010: "Here was a guy [McDonnell] who was a conservative, who was not afraid to speak to that," said RNC chairman Michael Steele. "But what he did was he applied it to the issues that were important to the people in his state. He didn't need to run away from it."

Representative Pete Sessions, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has recruited 26 women to run in 2010, agrees.

"The economy and jobs and debt dominate, not just the political landscape, but what people are talking about around their own tables," he said, which was what McDonnell stuck to while Deeds attacked. "The [message] that worked in New Jersey was corruption."