In my last (first?) post, I talked a little bit about the so-called “War on Women” and the effect that it had on the Virginia gubernatorial election. I also talked about how Ken Cuccinelli fared far worse than his counterpart in New Jersey, Chris Christie, in the messaging war to define him as a candidate. Today, I’d like to elaborate a little more on that point and what it means for Republican candidates in future elections.
First off, a few disclaimers: I’m going to keep this post relatively short because Mary Hasson over at the Federalist has basically already written the post I was planning. She asserts, quite correctly I think, that contextual factors accounted for much of the disparity between Cuccinelli and Christie in terms of how they were treated by pro-choice interest groups. Christie was the overwhelming favorite going into his campaign for reelection and as such his opponent attracted much less funding from organizations like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List than say, a Democrat in a competitive open-seat race in Virginia. So, essentially, it seems that some Republican candidates can get away with not focusing at all on women’s issues and still get elected. In fact, Bill Whalen of RealClearPolitics recommends that all GOP candidates do just that, saying “Republicans would do well to de-emphasize social issues.”
I think the key point that Mr. Whalen misses—and that Ken Cuccinelli proved quite clearly—is that not all Republicans have the luxury of pretending that social issues don’t exist and still get elected. Candidates like Cuccinelli—who was in a competitive race and (most importantly) had a voting record as a staunch social conservative—can’t simply keep mum on social issues and hope that voters won’t notice. They most certainly will, if for no other reason than simply because pro-choice organizations are going to spend a lot of money reminding them.
Obviously, there is a lot more to women’s rights than the abortion issue. But, like it or not, that is the one issue that will inevitably stand out the most in an electoral contest. Sadly, the abortion debate in the United States is almost completely dominated by what Ms. Hasson refers to as the “zealots” on both sides—those on the right who think that a single-cell zygote has Constitutional rights and those on the left who think that abortions should be added to the McDonald’s dollar menu. It’s no surprise that the majority of Americans don’t agree with either of these camps. But nevertheless, these are the people trying to define candidates for you.
And this is where the Republicans most often make the fatal mistake. They have nothing to say when those on the left portray them as woman-haters. Now, I know I asserted in my last article that the GOP’s gap among women voters is more a function of their problem with minorities, and I stand by that analysis. But at the same time, I recognize that it can’t be a good thing for Republican candidates to get hammered relentlessly with the “War on Women” label and have absolutely no rebuttal.
So what should they do? Mr. Whalen’s solution of simply downplaying social issues isn’t likely to pan out all that well in many cases. He cites Bob McDonnell’s big win in 2009 as proof that this strategy works: “Mr. McDonnell is pro-life, but he campaigned as ‘the jobs governor.’ He carried the women's vote by 8%.” But, again, this ignores crucial contextual factors. McDonnell ran for governor amid the build-up toward a massive GOP wave in 2010. The Republican base was fired up while their counterparts in the Democratic camp were demoralized, discouraged, and struggling to unite behind a no-name candidate (who, by the way, suffered a tragic turn of events today and should be in everyone’s thoughts and prayers). In that kind of environment, you can afford to ignore your baggage—and let’s not forget, Bob McDonnell had just as strong a record as a social conservative as Cuccinelli (remember his thesis from Regent?).
If I had it my way, I would just have the Republican Party abandon the pro-life position as one of its main planks. But I’m also a pragmatist who recognizes that such a move would lead to a revolt within their base, so it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. I’m not pretending to have a golden key that fixes this problem. I’m just pointing out that candidates like Cuccinelli need to at least play defense with their pro-life and otherwise socially conservative positions if they want to win. They cannot follow the Cuccinelli playbook, which was essentially to repeat the mistakes of the Romney campaign in Virginia. They both spent the entire summer idly sitting by as Democratic and Democrat-affiliated organizations spent loads of cash painting them as extreme candidates for whom mainstream Virginians couldn’t possibly vote. Maybe, just maybe, explaining to women voters their reasons for having these positions would be more successful than just ignoring them outright. While many moderate voters might still disagree with these positions, they at least might not revile them. And that could make a huge difference.
That actually wasn’t a very short post, was it? Sorry.