ATLANTA — Democrat Michelle Nunn happily notes that she’d be Georgia’s first elected female senator.
“I meet women all the time who are aware that we have a chance to make history,” Nunn told The Associated Press before a recent campaign stop.
Another Democratic Senate hopeful, Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, accuses Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP’s Senate floor leader, of a shoddy record on issues important to women. “As the third of five daughters, I grew up around a lot of women voices and women matter,” Grimes told the AP.
In the race for an open Senate seat in Michigan, it’s the Republican, Terri Lynn Land, highlighting her gender as she battles Democratic Rep. Gary Peters. In a recent television ad, Land declares: “Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe I’m waging a war on women. ... Think about that for a moment.” She adds sarcastically, “I approved this message because, as a woman, I might know a little more about women than Gary Peters.”
It’s all part of a 2014 midterm scramble, as the two parties try to secure support from the moderate female voters who could decide a series of competitive races — several of them featuring female candidates — that, in turn, will determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
With Republicans needing a net gain of six seats for a majority, Democrats want to replicate the kind of advantage among female voters — the “gender gap”— they usually post in presidential election years. Democrats are angling again for advantages on issues they believe will matter: pocketbook policy on minimum wage and pay equity, education, health care and insurance coverage for contraception.
“There’s no secret that over the last couple of cycles, women have been a disproportionate part of the targeted persuadable voters,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, a top campaign adviser to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
It’s an anchor of Democrats’ effort to protect incumbents Hagan, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Udall in Colorado and to winning in Georgia and Kentucky — Democrats’ only realistic chances to pick up GOP-held seats.
Republicans bristle at the implication that their agenda hurts women. GOP candidates and strategists predict that November results will be determined by the nation’s economy and overall direction, with voter discontent toward Obama and his signature health care overhaul trumping whatever Democrats highlight.
Recent history — including Landrieu’s and Hagan’s 2008 victories — demonstrates why women are an electoral commodity.
In 2008, Landrieu outperformed Obama, winning 57 percent of women while Obama captured just 42 percent of women voters in Louisiana. Hagan’s 55 percent matched Obama’s support among women in North Carolina. Both fared worse among men, with Hagan garnering just 47 percent of their votes.
Two years later, Democrats’ gender gap persisted across three Senate contests featuring male candidates. Women backed victorious Democrats by double digits in both West Virginia and in Colorado. Women split evenly in Kentucky, even as Republican Rand Paul carried men by 21 percentage points.
Of course, maximizing the gender gap in 2014 still could be tricky when an older, whiter electorate — the usual in midterms — makes it harder for Democrats to motivate their core supporters without alienating conservative-leaning independents. Republican confidence is bolstered since many competitive races occur in states where Obama lost in 2012 and where he remains unpopular.
“In states where Democrats don’t win that often, this is not the year they’re going to reverse the trend,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who works for North Carolina’s GOP Senate front-runner, Thom Tillis. “It’s hard to overcome the fundamentals with tactics, no matter how good a campaign you run.”
Anzalone conceded as much, but said the Democratic strategy isn’t about winning on single, hot-button issues “isolated to women.” Instead, he said, it’s about a range of issues that combine to “help take Republicans off their narrative.”
Anzalone noted that Tillis, who serves as North Carolina House speaker, would have to answer for cutting financing for public education. As she awaits the GOP primary that Tillis is favored to win, Hagan has already criticized the legislature for a rightward lurch that she says hurts women.
Nunn, who also must wait for Republican primary results, declares that all of her potential fall opponents are “running to the extremes,” while she trumpets herself as a “moderate voice” and “a problem-solver.”
Many of the female Democratic candidates have echoed Landrieu on health care, defending specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act that find favor among women and independents: allowing children to stay on family policies until age 26 and banning insurers from denying coverage based on existing health conditions.
In Colorado, the wrangling is apparent even in an all-male race. Democrats backing Udall have attacked Republican Rep. Cory Gardner for his previous support of a “personhood” amendment, a provision that recognizes legal rights for fetuses from conception. Gardner has since backed off, a signal of how sensitive the issue could be in the perennially competitive state.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, follow Land’s lead from Michigan and answer Democrats with mockery and indignation.
McConnell campaign aides dismiss Grimes as a hypocrite for being slow to speak out against another prominent Kentucky Democrat — a state House member — accused of sexual harassment.
In Georgia, Karen Handel, the only woman in the seven-candidate Republican nomination fight, suggests that nominating a woman is the answer for the fall race. Standing alongside 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at a recent campaign event, Handel told cheering supporters she’d welcome a matchup with Nunn.
“I would really love to see Michelle Nunn drop the ‘war on women’ on me,” she said.
Associated Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, D.C., and AP writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.