If you live in Colorado, you might be forgiven for thinking the 2014 midterm elections are about one thing: abortion. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Monday released a new television ad hitting GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall for his Colorado seat, for not “being honest with women.”
“Cory Gardner is trying to hide that he is sponsoring a new law to make all abortions illegal, even for victims of rape or incest,” says the DSCC release. The ad features OB-GYN Dr. Eliza Buyers, who slams Gardner: “Cory Gardner is wrong to make abortion illegal and just as wrong not to tell the truth about it.”
Udall himself has two other ads up targeting female voters. In one, another Colorado OB-GYN talks about Gardner’s “long record of fighting to roll back women’s access to health care.” And a second ad calls out Gardner “for personhood lies.” About half the ads he has run again Gardner have highlighted what Democrats call Gardner’s extreme stances on women’s reproductive rights.
The problem is Gardner refuses to play along. In March, he retracted his support for a measure on so-called personhood, or the belief that life begins at the moment of conception, and has since backed making contraception—though not all forms of it—available over the counter.
Now, with a week to go before the election, Udall is down 2.8 percentage points in polls, according to an average of Colorado polls by Real Clear Politics. More troublingly he’s down amongst female voters in at least two polls. If Udall loses women, he’s lost his seat.
Udall’s narrow focus helped cost him the support of the Denver Post, the state’s largest paper. “Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives,” the Post said in its endorsement of Gardner. “Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”
And Udall isn’t the only Democrat struggling to turn the focus on women into a winning strategy. In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is even with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell with women, as is Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat fending off a strong GOP challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas. Like Udall, both Grimes and Pryor have invested heavily in turning out the women’s vote.
The “War on Women” is a playbook Democrats ran successfully in 2012, with significant assists from GOP senatorial candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock whose inopportune remarks on women and rape helped paint the party as out-of-touch on female issues. Unfortunately for Democrats, there have been no Akin and Murdoch repeats and candidates like Gardner have been much savvier in their messaging on women’s issues.
“A myopic focus on reproductive freedom and the ‘War on the Women’ does not seem to be an effective way to mobilize and motivate women in a year when the economy and jobs are at the forefront of voters’ minds, and GOP candidates have not made the same kinds of mistakes that Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did in 2012,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute. “In other words, courting the women’s vote is a smart move; the way several Democrats have gone about doing it has been not so smart.”
To be fair, the strategy is clearly working in other states like North Carolina, Georgia and New Hampshire where Democrats hold double-digit leads with women. And Colorado is notoriously difficult to poll. A Democratic poll released Monday showed Udall up by 9 points amongst female voters. Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC, says that Colorado’s move to an all-mail voting system this cycle favors Democrats. Canter also noted that in the early voting returns thus far many female voters who did not vote in 2010 but did in 2012 are already turning out for Udall. “Public polls in Colorado were wrong in 2012 on Mitt Romney and they were wrong in 2010 on failed GOP Senate contender] Ken Buck,” says Canter. “We believe we maintain a strong advantage with women and that advantage is important for all these races.”
Certainly, Democrat Michael Bennet’s race against Buck is the template for Udall’s tough reelection. “In 2010 Michael Bennet was able to survive a midterm election in which Democrats lost their House majority in what Obama called a shellacking losing a record 63 seats and they barely hung onto Senate control because of his strength with women voters,” says Michele Swers, an associate professor at Georgetown University who specializes in women in U.S. politics. “Udall is trying to replicate that.”
The problem is, unless Udall’s polls are to be believed, “the gender gap in this race isn’t as great as it has been in past Senate races, notably 2008 and 2010,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Arguably, the focus on turning out the women’s vote has kept 2014 from being a wave year: the only seats in play are in purple or red states, not blue ones. Progressive Sen. Al Franken, for example, is sailing through to reelection in Minnesota.
But unmarried women, the demographic Udall is targeting, are notoriously bad drop off voters in non-presidential years and clearly they seem to be motivated in some states more so than others. Udall has bet his race on turning them out. If they fail to materialize, Democrats will have to ask themselves: Was winning women the right strategy for all of their races? And when does it work and when doesn’t it and why?