Democrats have long relied on women to put them over the edge on Election Day, but in 2014 that advantage is slipping in key races where Democrats need the votes most.
The latest public polls in Arkansas, Colorado, and Kentucky reveal Democrats are on the verge of losing hotly contested Senate races with less than two weeks to go. And despite Democrats spending significant time back in Washington focused on issues like the Paycheck Fairness Act and a minimum-wage pitch carefully tailored to women—part of their strategy to paint Republicans as too extreme—all three Democratic Senate candidates in those states are either tied with or lagging behind their Republican challengers among women.
In Kentucky, 35-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, once considered the Democrats' best hope for unseating three-decade Republican incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell, is in a statistical dead heat with McConnell among the state's female electorate. A Bluegrass poll conducted last week found 44 percent of women support McConnell, to Grimes's 43 percent.
McConnell is taking advantage of that momentum, releasing a campaign ad Wednesday featuring young women explaining why they are in his corner despite his votes to stop the Paycheck Fairness Act and the recent version of the Violence Against Women Act.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes wants me to think that I'm not good enough," says Caroline Anderegg, a woman who appears in the ad.
"She wants me to believe that strong women and strong values are incompatible," says Dallas Knierman, another woman in the spot.
Democratic candidates still enjoy strong leads among women voters in Senate races in North Carolina and Georgia, but Republican strategists say that Democrats' struggles in places like Arkansas, Kentucky, and Colorado are symptomatic of two things. First, the election's focus has switched from pocketbook issues to national security, a topic on which Republicans have traditionally held the advantage. In Kentucky, voters might be more comfortable keeping the experienced McConnell than electing fresh-faced Grimes. As Ebola and ISIS grab headlines, the so-called security moms may be poised to cast ballots for Republicans.
Republican strategists also say that the 2014 midterm election proves that Democrats' "war on women" rhetoric they counted on to secure victories in 2012 has finally lost its luster.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, says that Democrats are not as vulnerable as they were in 2010, when Republicans won women nationally by a single point, but they are certainly in a more precarious position than in 2012, when Obama captured the women's vote in the presidential election by 12 points.
"Women hate to be taken for granted and the Democrats totally stepped in it this year," Conway says. "They figured if we keep beating the 'war on women' drum, we can win."
Many Democrats expected that Republican Rep. Cory Gardner's support of personhood legislation—which would have made some forms of birth control illegal—would be enough to cement Sen. Mark Udall's support among women. Yet, Gardner threw a curveball: He renounced his position on personhood and released a June editorial in The Denver Post calling for birth control to be available over the counter.
In its endorsement of Gardner, The Denver Post admonished Udall for staying the course on the "war on women" narrative when he could have been highlighting his own record in the Senate.
"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," the editorial board wrote.
The latest Suffolk University poll found that Gardner led Udall 46 percent to 39 percent among women. However, the pollster told National Journal that with the margin of error it could still be perceived as a narrow lead or tie.
In Arkansas, the latest poll showed Republican Rep. Tom Cotton with a 46 percent to 43 percent lead over Sen. Mark Pryor among women. But Democratic strategists flatly deny their candidates are losing their way with women.
"Don't believe everything you read," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who works closely with several Senate campaigns. "The Republicans have displayed this antipathy toward women in choice issues and by redefining rape, and that is a slap in the face to women."
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky also said internal polls told a different story, although he did not provide any poll results to National Journal.
"I think the only thing that's going on is you're reading bad public polls," Barasky said. "The truth is, all of our candidates enjoy healthy leads with women voters because Republican Senate candidates across the map are against equal pay, for personhood, for blocking access to common forms of birth control, and against the Violence Against Women Act."
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