Next Chapter in the ‘Republican War Against Women’

Next Chapter in the ‘Republican War Against Women’

by Tanya Melich

Republican women have become a not-so-subtle weapon for breaking apart the Democratic coalition, grounded in the women’s vote, that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate in 2006 and 2008 and made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House. This year for the first time since 1982, Democrats did not have a voting advantage with women. Men supported Republicans by a margin of 12 percent and women by one percent.

©Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

This month’s mid-term elections were a watershed for women’s electoral politics. The national GOP is no longer trying to win votes from the backlash to the women’s movement. Instead it has embraced the movement’s call for more women elected officials.

In fact, national Republican strategists have finally decided that electing women, especially women of color, brings power to the party. This time around the strategy brought them some victories, but don’t be fooled: The Republican party is not championing the feminist policy agenda. Instead, GOP strategists are escalating the Republican War Against Women that has been going on since the 1980s and they’ve organized a second front led by women to oppose the feminist agenda.

Numbers do not tell the whole story. While Democrats continued to win women of color and unmarried women this year, they lost big among white women. In 2006, they voted for Republicans by 50 percent to 49 percent for Democrats. This year the Republicans won white women by 57 percent compared to 40 percent for Democratic candidates.

Yet overall, despite this huge switch to Republican candidates, women voters are the reason why the U.S. Senate remains Democratic.

In many races, Democratic candidates who supported women’s issues couldn’t overcome independent white women’s anger over the poor economy.They voted for a change hoping Republicans would make a difference even as polling data indicated that a majority agreed with Democrats on social issues.

The Real Story

So forget for a moment the angst that has swept the feminist community since Sarah Palin’s entrance on the national stage. Forget those many agonizing articles about right-wing women stealing feminism; focus on what’s really going on:

Palin and her mama grizzlies are a twenty-first century upgrading of the backlash against women and minorities strategy that put Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bush II in the White House. These angry women are the bait, stirring a pot of discontent against the Obama Presidency. Their candidacies are the first act in a plan by the Republican right—now joined by its Tea Party allies and supply-side libertarians—to run the Republican party .

Their goal is the White House and a radical redirection of American government that will rollback much of the New Deal and Great Society policies. They seek repeal of many of the laws of the last thirty years that opened opportunities for those left out of America’s mainstream— women, minorities, gays and immigrants.

It is engineered by a new generation of Republican tacticians who have built their strategy on the foundation laid in the original Republican War Against Women. That earlier crew—composed of Reagan’s campaign team, new right and religious right leaders—orchestrated the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, opposed affirmative action, federal money for child care and numerous policies aimed at making life better for women and their families.

The centerpiece of this war has always been women’s reproductive health. Through the 1970s and 1980s, abortion was its principal issue. Now they have expanded their opposition to stem cell research and contraception.

For these 2010 angry women candidates, opposition to abortion remains the keystone of their political philosophy. But they downplayed abortion in their campaigns, instead attacking big government spending and high taxes.

Their campaigns were lavishly financed by organizations favoring specific economic interests, either through traditional GOP support groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or fronts funded by wealthy individuals, such as the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, who are protecting the sectors that feed their wealth.

The strategic aim of this newest version of the backlash strategy is to weaken the Democrat’s attraction to its strongest constituency, women voters. This year it had three parts:

1- To energize large numbers of Republican women voters through the campaigns of the radical Republican women candidates.

2- To use this Republican female energy to attract independent women who occasionally voted Republican and want lower taxes and less government.

3- To make Democratic women feel a sense of hopelessness, to encourage a lack of enthusiasm for voting, to alienate them from Obama.

What is surprising is how long it took this male-dominated, backlash political machine to recognize that the path to control of state houses, Congress and the White House was with feisty right-wing women candidates. The machine had funded a few female candidates in the past but never in a serious, systematic way. It never welcomed Phyllis Schlafly, the leader of the Republican anti-feminist movement of the 1970s and ’80s, into its inner circle.

It was the success of the women’s political movement that brought about this change in strategy. We had succeeded in convincing Americans that women could be governors, senators and president.

Sarah Palin’s ‘Morning in America’ Reprise

This new approach became apparent when presidential candidate John McCain selected Palin to be his running mate in 2008. McCain’s campaign naively hoped that some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters would cross party lines.

Palin’s ascendancy was significant politically because it marked the beginning of the new angry women strategy. It also marked the beginning of the effort by the religious right, the radical right and the supply siders to wrest control of the GOP from its more traditional leadership.

Midterm Election Scorecard

While Democratic women still outnumber Republican women in the Senate by three to one and in the House by about two to one, the only Democratic woman newly elected to the Senate was New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, and she was already serving in the office after being appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when Clinton was named Secretary of State. In the House, at least nine incumbent Democratic congresswomen lost (results are still being tallied in some places,) while four new Democratic women of color were elected. No Democratic women were elected governor.

Of the Republican women candidates, three will be governors, one a U.S. senator and at least eight more will be in the House of Representatives. Republicans Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a South Asian-American, and Susana Martinez, a Latina from New Mexico, became the first women of color to become governors. (Update: When the final votes were tallied, nine newly-elected Republican women joined the House of Representatives, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska will be caucusing with the Republicans after winning her write-in bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate as an Independent.)

Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal won his senatorial campaign against Linda McMahon, the super-rich wrestling entertainment executive because he was strong on choice and other feminist issues. McMahon was lukewarm. Many women voters were highly uncomfortable with her hard-charging commercials and unsavory business actions.

California’s Senator Barbara Boxer had disapproval rates as high as 80 percent at the beginning of her campaign. Running for a fourth term and in a state with the third highest unemployment rate in the country, Boxer knew that Californians were in no mood to return her to Washington.

Boxer’s opponent, millionaire Carly Fiorina, was a former Hewlett-Packard CEO with a questionable ethics record and decisions that had sent jobs overseas. Early in the campaign, polls showed Fiorina ahead, but she flagged when she promised to vote for legislation overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. This pushed many undecided women to Boxer.

As a leader in the pro-choice community and a long time backer of feminist issues, Boxer convinced women of all races that she had the experience to help them. Women voters made the difference, and Boxer won by 11 percent.

In Nevada, Democratic Senator Harry Reid trailed Tea Party leader Sharron Angle for much of the campaign. Nevada has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and jobs and spending dominated the voter’s concerns. Reid turned the election around when he emphasized economic issues championed by the Democratic party and talked about jobs and helping women. Angle’s message emphasized change and getting rid of Reid.

He was as colorless as his opponent was colorful, yet the women of Nevada preferred this lukewarm pro-choice senator to angry Angle. She opposed all abortions with no exceptions and took positions that were eccentric and too extreme for middle-of-the-road Nevadans. Reid won by 5 percent with the support of the women who work in the casinos, bars and restaurants of greater Las Vegas.

Palin writes in Going Rogue, her book published last year, that she, like Ronald Reagan, believes “each person has a destiny, a reason for being.” She fashions herself guided by God to follow the example shown to her by Reagan’s presidency.

Two days after this year’s election, Palin’s PAC released a video showing a grizzly bear roaring in silhouette. Over pictures of people cheering, Palin speaks of how well her candidates did in the election. She reprises the Reagan slogan praising “our movement…our morning in America.”

November 5 tally by Politics Daily, reported that 62 Palin-backed candidates won their races, 23 were beaten and, as of that date, seven races were still too close to call.

Two of the highest profile, and most controversial, candidates backed by Palin were among the losers: Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate seats, Angle in Nevada and O’Donnell in Delaware.

According to Politics Daily, however, Palin and her allies racked up a 70 percent win rate, and they will move quickly to consolidate their gains, push for some of the Tea Party agenda and, above all, paralyze the Obama White House.

Will Palin run for President? I believe she will.

The Republican War against Woman has not ended. But it’s got Palin, Michele Bachmann, re-elected to her Minnesota congressional seat, and now Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez leading it.

On election night, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell did not sound as though they had lost their bid to go to Washington. They sounded like an echo of Palin’s video. They are ready to “bring morning to America” and that means reversing the gains women have made over the last three decades.

Let them try. The battle is joined. We are ready.

Tanya Melich is one of the founders of the women’s political movement. Her roots are in the Republican party, where for over 20 years she fought for the GOP to adopt a women’s agenda. In 1996, she published a critically successful book, The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report From Behind the Lines and then left the party. She continues her work for feminist candidates and writes and speaks on women and politics.

Also see Republicans Aim to ‘Divide and Conquer’ by Lu Bailey in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Election ’96: Don’t Stay Home, an Interview with Tanya Melich by Julia Kagan in the Summer 1995 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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