The War on Women couldn't save Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), but it did save 20 out of 21 Republican committee chairmanships for the white guys who wage it. Just two years after their 2012 election thrashing at the hands of women, minority, and young voters forced them to commission a soul-searching "autopsy report," Republicans have managed to exactly duplicate their feat of shutting women out of almost every committee chairmanship. In 2012, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) named one woman, Rep. Candice Miller (R-Ohio), to a chairmanship after intense media backlash over the other 20 white male chairmen who had already been appointed.
Well, the results are in for the new Congress, and the score is Candice Miller: 1, white dudes: 19, Portuguese dudes: 1. That ratio is apparently no problem for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who responded to criticism from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough this morning by quickly almost naming two women:
"Well, as part of the leadership, we have a lot of women in our leadership team. You know, I was just with Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, our Conference Chairman, last night. And obviously, we have a number of other women that are very talented as part of our conference leadership. Uh, we also, as well as chairmen, and other leaders of the committees."
Scalise is almost right, there is a number of other woman in the House GOP leadership. That number is one, namely Republican Conference Vice Chair Lynn Jenkins (R-Kans.). Both women already held those posts in the current Congress.
Liberals like myself are having all kinds of delighted fun watching people like Scalise fumble this issue, but the Democrats' success with women in 2012 is a double-edged sword. Much of that success was due more to Republican ham-fistedness with women than Democratic skill at exploiting and messaging policy differences. Outgoing Sen. Mark Udall pushed women's issues almost exclusively in his losing campaign, failing to achieve a gender gap wide enough for victory. Part of that is due to the overall conservative tilt of that electorate, but part of it has to do with a broader Democratic failure at properly messaging to women. The dual dangers here are that they continue their blunt force approach to these issues, or abandon them entirely.
The Republican Party, staunch defenders of the interests of white men, realizes that they don’t do poorly with all women. Mitt Romney won with white women by an impressive 14 points. He also won with married women by a seven point margin, but the message they seem to have taken from this is that all they really have to do is take their regular white male appeal and slap some lipstick on it. If you’re married, and reasonably privileged, why would you need an abortion, or contraception, or even equal pay? You’re way more complicated than these “narrow women’s issues,” right? You’re probably married to a guy who’s benefiting from the pay gap, anyway, so evening things up is only going to help out some other chick.
The problem is that, when you look a little more closely at those results, they tell a more complicated story. White women and married women are the only two groups of women that Romney won, but among women with children living at home, he lost by 13%. What Republicans fail to understand is that those “narrow women’s issues” are actually not narrow at all, and not just women’s issues. Family planning is primarily an economic issue. Sixty-one percent of women who have abortions already have children. and three quarters of women cite economic reasons for having an abortion.
Democrats have erred in their “War on Women” strategy by not more accurately labeling it the “War on Those Women,” the kind who need equality and freedom of choice, but also by not messaging those issues as economic issues. Udall's loss is a warning shot that says the same strategy won't work again unless the Republicans machine-gun themselves in both feet again. Granted, that's a strong possibility, but it would be better to prepare for them not to.