By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)
BOULDER, Colo. — The war for women is raging in campaigns across the country in these last days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, and though Democrats have comfortable leads in most key races, the margins aren’t as comfortable as they’d like or need.
Hurting the party is a renewed concern about security, particularly among mothers who tend to see the Obama administration as fumbling recent crises — from the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the fears of Ebola spreading in the U.S. — as well as some backlash from Republicans and independents who complain that Democrats seem obsessed with reproductive rights issues.
Democrats have spent much of the election year insisting Republicans would jeopardize abortion rights and access to contraception and make it harder to gain equal pay. While those messages have won Democrats healthy margins among women, it’s not the overwhelming edge the party sought.
“Many women say, ‘You’re trivializing us,’ ” said Wayne Lesperance, director of the Center for Civil Engagement at New England College in New Hampshire. “Women say, ‘We’re going to war again and we’re worried about this disease.’ ”
That view echoes all over states with tight races. Cydney Tanner, a University of Colorado student, is voting Republican because she appreciates how President George W. Bush dealt with terrorists.
She was in the first grade on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked American targets. “President Bush was very comforting. I really felt assured I was safe,” she said.
Women could be critical constituencies in virtually all of the too-close-to-call contests next week where Democrats need double-digit leads among women to offset strong Republican advantages among men, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Marist’s latest polls for NBC show Democrats flirting with political danger.
In Iowa, Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for Senate, is up by only 5 percentage points among women. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall has an 11-point advantage, the same margin as Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan leads by 10 points. Only Pryor’s numbers are up from previous polls this fall.
In New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, has a 5 percentage-point lead over Republican Scott Brown, down from 12 in September, according to the latest New England College Poll. Helping drive that trend: Two-thirds of women polled earlier this month in New Hampshire said they were very or somewhat concerned the Ebola virus would affect the state.
Wooing women, particularly those who are unmarried, has been a crucial part of Democrats’ strategy this year, and loyalists maintain they’re going to do well with those constituencies next week.
“Unmarried women, who tend to pay attention later, are listening to the economic narrative,” said Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, devoted to getting unmarried women to vote.
There’s also contraception. After the Supreme Court’s June ruling exempting certain companies from providing government-mandated birth control services if they violate the owners’ religious beliefs, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the decision “jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies.”
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, leaders have made equal pay, reproductive rights and reauthorizing domestic violence laws top priorities. On the campaign trail, candidates have been relentless painting Republicans as heartless anti-abortion zealots — in Colorado, Udall has been dubbed “Mark Uterus” for his persistent focus on such issues. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, trying to build her own momentum among women for a possible 2016 presidential run, campaigned for Udall last week and warned, “Women’s rights here at home and around the world are clearly at risk.”
All this has triggered sharp criticism. “If Colorado’s U.S. Senate race were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist’s office, complete with an exam table and a set of stirrups,” wrote Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post last month.
Getting Democratic women to the polls, though, faces several challenges. Unmarried women are more prone to stay home on Election Day. They tend to be younger voters who often are not engaged in politics.
“A lot are heads of households and not affluent at all,” said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics in New Jersey. “They don’t focus on politics. They’re more worried about meals on the table.”
The battle for women has intensified in these final pre-election days.
In Iowa, Ernst’s background as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard helps her with women concerned about security. “The biography is attractive,” said Christopher Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll in Dubuque, Iowa.
In Arkansas, the Democratic senatorial committee launched an ad this week where a woman maintains, “A vote for Tom Cotton is a vote against Arkansas women.” Cotton fights back, as “Women for Cotton” tell voters on a website, “Women in Arkansas know that the Obama-Pryor economic agenda isn’t working.”
Cotton also stressed his military credentials. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Colorado’s the stage for some of the most intense battles, thanks to Udall’s all-out effort to woo women. This week, he launched an ad blasting Republican opponent Rep. Cory Gardner for co-sponsoring a measure to provide equal protection under the Constitution “for the right to life of each born and preborn human person.” Backers call this personhood. Gardner earlier this year said he does not back personhood anymore.
Democratic women are wary and insisted they’ll flood the polls Tuesday. “Democrats show us respect. Republicans act like women are a minor class,” said Molly Nunes, an Aurora nurse.
Electing a new senator is not necessarily going to make things safer, say these women — after all, it’s the executive branch that’s in charge of disease control and national security policy.
Republicans disagreed. “Democrats pegged us as single-issue voters,” said Ellyn Hilliard, a Lyons insurance saleswoman. “That’s insulting.”
Photo: uacescomm via Flickr