Commentary

Christensen: Women key to Senate race

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

It took North Carolina voters a very long time to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate, and when they finally did, it required remarkable circumstances – a woman with national stature, pushed by a popular president and riding a national wave.

North Carolina has been progressive in many ways, but not so much when it comes to women. This is, after all, a state that voted against ratifying constitutional amendments giving women the vote in 1920 or the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. And many Southern Baptists here still believe that women were created from Adam’s rib and should be man’s helpmate.

But Republican Elizabeth Dole was the ultimate credentialed candidate: a Harvard-trained lawyer who was a former White House aide, former transportation secretary, former labor secretary, former Red Cross president and former presidential candidate married to a former presidential candidate.

She was backed to the hilt by the White House. President George W. Bush, then at the height of his popularity following a quick victory in Afghanistan and before the invasion of Iraq, campaigned for Dole five times. The only candidate he campaigned for more in 1992 was his brother Jeb Bush. Dole defeated a strong candidate in Democrat Erskine Bowles.

But six years later, the bloom was off the Bush. The economy was cratering, the war in Iraq was not going well, and Dole was defeated by Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro.

The gender politics that undoubtedly helped Dole in 1992 was neutralized in 1998 when the race featured two women. Hagan won the women’s vote 55 percent to 41 percent.

Tillis tries to make inroads

This year’s Senate race between Hagan and House Speaker Thom Tillis will be all about gender, as Hagan tries to hang on to the women’s vote and Tillis tries to make inroads.

You can see it in the TV ads. Tillis doesn’t show up in a TV ad without his wife, Susan. And nearly all of the Republican attack ads tying Hagan to President Barack Obama’s health care plan have featured women talking about how their health care is going to get worse.

One features a woman looking into the camera. She says: “People don’t like political ads. I don’t like them either. But health care is not about politics, it’s about people ... and millions of people have lost their health insurance. Millions of people can’t see their own doctors. And millions are paying more and getting less. Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. Tell Sen. Hagan to stop thinking about politics and start thinking about people.” The ad was paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a group with close ties to the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch.

As Republicans pivot to economic issues, expect to see the women in the ads asking their peers whether they are better off in the Obama-Hagan economy. GOP strategists think the answer for struggling families making a combined annual income of $60,000 will be no.

The politics of reproduction are also coming into play. EMILY’s List has begun a $3 million “Women Vote” campaign designed to re-elect Hagan. Planned Parenthood recently announced a $3 million campaign to mobilize women voters on behalf of Hagan. Both are abortion rights groups.

The gender politics was evident last week when Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, announced it would begin a $100,000 ad campaign in Raleigh attacking Hagan for supporting “painful, late abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy.”

In light of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision on birth control, Hagan portrayed Tillis as more “fringe” than the high court ruling, saying he supported a “personhood” constitutional amendment that bans some forms of birth control.

On a divisive issue such as abortion, both sides are attempting to portray their opponent as outside the political mainstream.

In fact, North Carolinians, like the rest of the country, are sharply divided on abortion, which makes the issue tricky to use in a campaign. An Elon University poll in April found that 46 percent of women want fewer restrictions and that 37 percent want more.

The first anti-Tillis ad launched by EMILY’s List was about education, not abortion. It featured a pregnant Raleigh English teacher named Jasmine.

“I love teaching,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. But with a baby on the way, I don’t have a lot of extra money. On top of it all, I have to buy supplies for my classroom. And my classroom is getting a lot more crowded. Speaker Thom Tillis cut almost $500 million from education, causing crowded classrooms and forcing teachers to pay more out-of-pocket for school supplies, while Tillis protected tax breaks for yachts and jets.”

Despite $25 million having been already spent in North Carolina’s Senate race, Hagan still holds a comfortable lead, according to two polls. A worried GOP knows that it must peel off some of Hagan’s support from women if it is going to have a chance to defeat her in November – and maybe have an opportunity to retake the U.S. Senate.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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