Republicans, hoping to gain seats in the Senate, knew that their limited appeal among minorities would be a problem, as would party infighting. But they did not expect to be derailed by the definition of rape.
Comments by two Republican Senate candidates concerning pregnancies that result from rape — coming after months of battles in Congress over abortion; financing for contraception; and a once-innocuous piece of legislation to protect victims of domestic violence — turned contagious as one Republican Senate candidate after another fell short of victory on Tuesday night.
In Indiana and Missouri, home to some of the more reliably conservative women voters in the country, Republicans lost their Senate battles even as many of those voters rejected President Barack Obama. In Wisconsin, the Republican candidate, a former Governor, lost to a female lawmaker who is decidedly more liberal than much of the State. In Connecticut, women overall turned against a Republican candidate who frequently reminded voters that she was a grandmother.
Indeed, being a woman did not offset being a Republican when it came to winning many congressional seats among women voters. While one Republican woman, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, will join the Senate in January, Democrats will add four women senators, including Heidi Heitkamp, who was declared the winner in the race for North Dakota’s open Senate seat, the last undecided contest. There are currently 17 women in the Senate; two of them, both Republicans, are retiring.
Republicans in the House entered the election with just 24 women. Now, unless another one prevails in late tallies, there will be 21. By contrast, there are 52 women among the Democrats in the House, and 61 are expected in the next Congress.
Some Republicans conceded that they had worked to marginalise Todd Akin after he suggested during his failed bid for a Senate seat in Missouri that a woman’s body was able to prevent a pregnancy resulting from “legitimate rape”. They did so because they were worried that their party was increasingly seen among voters as preoccupied with issues like the one sponsored by Republicans in Virginia that would have required women to undergo vaginal sonograms before they could have an abortion.
“We have a significant problem with female voters,” said John Weaver, a senior Republican strategist. Mr. Akin’s comments, Mr. Weaver said, “did not seem like outliers”. Nor, he added, were those made by Richard E. Mourdock, whose Senate campaign in Indiana was derailed in spectacular fashion after he said in a debate that it was “God’s will” when a pregnancy resulted from rape.
“They did not seem foreign to our party,” said Mr. Weaver. “They seemed representative of our party.”
The comments had resonance, some Republicans said, in part because Democrats, seizing on the remarks and repeating them, worked hard to tar the entire party as being insensitive to women.
Congressional Republicans’ heavy focus on social issues affecting women like their proposals to reduce financing for Planned Parenthood and their challenge of an Obama administration ruling requiring insurance coverage for contraception set the groundwork for those perceptions. “What was really frustrating is that there was this myth manufactured by Democrats in Washington that the Republican Party as a whole is against women,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican-Maine, who said she watched with disappointment as her friend, Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, was tarred by the broader fight and lost his bid for re-election, to a woman.
“There is no doubt we need to do a better job as a party in reaching out to women, recruiting strong women candidates and sending a more positive message,” Ms. Collins said.
Women were not just turned off by perceived threats to their reproductive rights, Mr. Weaver said, but also by the tough tone that the party has taken toward immigrants and the poor. “We have to reach across a whole host of policy reforms”, he said. “For instance, immigration may not seem like a women’s issue, but as Ronald Reagan and Bush 41[Senior] and Bush 43[Junior] for a while seemed to understand is that when you reach out to one group it helps you across the board. We need to be changing our tone, to be standing for something and not just against things. We can be for health care and for equal pay for equal work without undermining our conservative principles.”
The problem with women voters was reflected at the top of the ticket: Mr. Obama beat Mitt Romney by 11 points among women. The numbers also lined up against Republicans in congressional races. In Indiana, Mr. Mourdock’s opponent, Republican Joe Donnelly, won 53 per cent of women’s votes, compared with Mr. Mourdock’s 41 per cent, in a state that Mr. Romney won handily. In the Connecticut Senate race, men were evenly divided, 49-49 per cent, but women favoured the Democratic candidate, Republican Christopher S. Murphy, 60-39 per cent, over the Republican, Linda E. McMahon. In Virginia, 56 per cent of women voted for the Democrat, Tim Kaine, and 44 per cent went for George Allen, the Republican, who lost the race.
— New York Times News Service