What Republicans learned from 2012’s “War on Women” rhetoric

November 7, 2014, 8:30 AM UTC
Erich Schlegel--Getty Images

So… How did the “War on Women” platform work out for the Democrats this election cycle?

Not too well. Let’s start with the WOW campaign’s poster-girl, Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. She lost by nearly 20 points, the worst drubbing of a Texas Democrat seeking the statehouse since George W. Bush’s landslide in 1998. Davis even lost Democratic strongholds—and women.

Just last year the national media had embraced Davis as a celebrity—practically the second coming of feminism—after her filibuster of a bill restricting abortions in Texas. Democrats were hoping she could deliver the Lone Star state—facing the same diverse demographics now killing the GOP in California—into their column.

True, Davis had an uphill climb as a Democrat in a red state, but let’s not forget that a female political legend climbed it before—former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Instead, this week media darling Wendy Davis turned out to be a political dud—a weak candidate with a muddled message.

Now, let’s turn to the WOW poster-boy, Colorado Senator Mark Udall, who made the GOP’s supposed war on women’s reproductive rights the centerpiece of his campaign. Udall’s laser focus on birth control and abortion earned him the campaign-trail nickname “Mark Uterus.” Republican congressman Cory Gardner dodged the WOW caricature—even running ads supporting over-the-counter birth control.

Instead, Udall was the one who became the object of ridicule; the incumbent Democrat lost by 2 points in a state that Obama handily carried two short years ago.

Remember Sandra Fluke, the former law student who shot to fame in 2012 when Republicans wouldn’t let her testify on behalf of free Obamacare birth control? Fluke lost her California state senate race, to a Democrat, by a whopping 61 to 39.

There are some lessons here. It is true that when it comes to women, there have been a few truly horrific voices emanating from the political right—talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggesting Fluke’s position made her a “slut,” (he later apologized for “insulting” word choices); 2012 Senate candidate Todd Akin’s assertion that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape”; candidate Richard Mourdock’s refusal to apologize for saying God “intended” the children of rape. All of those comments —and more—left Republican leaders, especially women, tearing their hair out.

This time around, party leaders played smart. Together with big donors like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, they moved early and aggressively to search out viable general-election candidates, successfully keeping fringe actors out of the GOP mix. Lacking candidates from “the caveman caucus” to offer up outrageous comments, the WOW campaign couldn’t gain traction. Instead, we heard GOP candidates telling voters they supported over-the-counter birth control “covered by insurance.”

But this election was also a stark reminder that women voters don’t care only about health issues. Reproductive rights don’t rank high on the list of female-voter priorities—especially at a time when wages are stagnating and ISIS is beheading Americans.

And even when the issue being debated is reproduction, women disagree. Take late-term abortions: The Texas bill that rocketed Wendy Davis to fame as the supposed protector of women’s rights included a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Yet a nationwide 2013 National Journal poll showed a majority of women supporting the ban—and in greater numbers than men.

The WOW campaign worked for Democrats in 2012—but also taught GOP leaders important lessons. The President’s clash with the Catholic Church over the Obamacare birth control mandate (which extended to church-affiliated groups) turned out to be a brilliant political tactic. By injecting the words “birth control” into a heated primary election season, Obama and the Democrats succeeded in throwing Republicans on the defense. Suddenly the party was faced with social conservative Rick Santorum declaring birth control “not okay,” followed by the Akin-Mourdock debacles. The GOP brand suffered mightily, especially with women.

The Republican Party’s demographic problems are far from over. This was a low-turnout election mostly populated by white, older voters. In 2016, the GOP still needs to make inroads with Hispanics, younger voters—and women. But this week’s election results show it’s not a lost cause.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

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