The party that was once against identity politics is learning to court the female vote
House Republicans on Wednesday will introduce a package of legislation aimed at helping “all Americans — particularly women — succeed at home and at work,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office told TIME exclusively. McMorris Rodgers has been spearheading the House effort to draft and introduce the measures for months. For a party that has loathed identity politics, the moment is an acknowledgment of how powerful female voters have become.
“As a wife, mom, and member of Congress, I am proud to promote legislative solutions that celebrate the extraordinarily positive role women play in all sectors of our economy,” McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 House Republican and the highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership, tells TIME. “Simply put: these bills will make life better for millions of Americans.”
Democrats have focused almost their entire 2014 agenda around issues that affect female voters, from pay equity to increasing the minimum wage, which impacts women disproportionately. They are hoping that by turning out single women, a reliably Democratic group but one that doesn’t often turn out for midterm elections, they can keep the Senate from flipping.
Republicans are seeking to check that move by appealing to women themselves, and McMorris Rodgers’ pitch on Wednesday is part of that effort. The move, part of a coordinated GOP effort to woo women this year, is striking. Republicans have long eschewed identity politics and, aside from George W. Bush’s courtship of soccer and security moms, have never made such a push as seen this year to court an individual voting bloc.
The package consists of several bills the House has already passed that increase job training, incentivize flexible work schedules, tax breaks for children and families, and strengthens charter schools. Most of the bills have been DOA in the Senate in an election year, though in a less polarized time they might have drawn some support. Democrats have introduced several similar workplace flexibility bills. The package also includes some new legislation to prevent retaliation when women ask about equal pay, a bill that restores cuts to home Medicare health care services and Child Care and Development Block Grant legislation, a bipartisan bill that has already passed the Senate and would become law if passed by the House.
With more and more women working, flexibility for both parents has become an increasingly popular issue on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Three-fourths of women are in the workforce today, women manage over 80% of household income, and more than 60% of women with children under 6 are working, according to Labor Department statistics. “We absolutely believe that women should absolutely get equal pay for equal work,” McMorris Rodgers says. “If there’s discrimination taking place then laws need to be strengthened. Equal pay was passed in 1963, civil rights in 1964, it’s been the law of the land but we are looking at strengthening those laws … The workforce has changed. Our laws should too.” Democrats have brought up legislation allowing women an indefinite amount of time to sue for loss of equal pay, but Republicans have shot down those bills as too onerous on employers, preferring a route that strengthens penalties as a deterrence.
Democrats have a 10-point advantage with women voters, according to a July Pew Research Center poll. While, conversely, Republicans have a 12-point edge with male voters, men turn out proportionately 10% less than female voters. All of which is to say, the female vote is much more powerful. The only time Republicans have won the female vote since 1984 — by less than 2 percentage points in 2010 — they took back the House and nearly flipped the Senate. Democrats, who hold a two-point lead in generic poll matchups, say the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and right-wing calls to impeach President Obama have helped bolster their case this year with women. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, says 60% of donations reaped by their $2.1 million anti-impeachment fundraising haul have come from women.
Senate Republicans Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer have introduced their own flexible work legislation—Fischer also introduced a package of equal pay, paid leave and microfinance bills—and the Republican National Committee recently held a women’s summit to bolster candidate recruitment and training. The RNC also launched “14 in 14” a program, which recruits young women to volunteer at least 30 minutes of their time every week for the 14 weeks leading up to the midterm elections. They will recruit other volunteers, potential candidates, identify female voters, work phone banks and help get people to the polls on election day.
All of these GOP efforts are also pushback on Democratic assertions that Republicans are waging a “war on women,” trying to limit not only abortion rights, but access to contraception — a narrative the Hobby Lobby decision, which ruled that a private company’s owners could refuse to pay as part of employee health insurance certain kinds of contraception in the face of their Christian beliefs — plays into. The GOP made a coordinated effort over the past two years to train their candidates and members to speak more delicately about issues of rape and abortion after inopportune comments offending women by two GOP Senate candidates arguably cost the party control of the Senate in 2012.
At the same time, Republicans have countered with an emphasis on economic issues. An RNC poll out last month found that women voters care more about the economy and jobs than social issues. “Democrats have long tried to reduce women to single-issue voters, and Republican have consistently called them out for failing to respect the fact that women vote on a wide range of issues,” the RNC’s Sharon Day wrote in an op-ed on Real Clear Politics on June 24. “By relying on cynical political attacks like the ‘war on women’ that lack substance, Democrats have failed to provide women with solutions to our top concerns.”
McMorris Rodgers’ efforts dovetail with the broader GOP push to turn the conversation away from hot-button topics to areas where Republicans are stronger, and frankly more comfortable discussing, like the economy. But given the House’s crowded schedule, looking to pass a bill overhauling the Veterans Affairs Department, an $11 billion patch on transport ion infrastructure funding and dealing with the influx of child refugees, the legislation is unlikely to pass before they break on Friday for a five-week summer recess. “After 2010, women on the Democratic side looked at that and said, we’ve got to do something, and they came up with the ‘war on women,’” McMorris Rodgers tells TIME. “And unfortunately a couple of our guys weeks before the election in 2012 made some really outrageous comments that are not reflective of the entire Republican Party and yet were very damaging. So we have some work to do to build the trust and to make sure that people recognize that the policies that we’re promoting for men and women will empower them and make a better life for them.”