As things started to look really bad for Democrats in the waning days of the midterm election, we started to hear complaints that Democratic candidates had focused too much of their effort on flogging the idea of a Republican “war on women.” Colorado’s Mark Udall returned to this theme so often that he was dubbed “Mark Uterus,” and you can see where that got him: he lost by a five-point margin.
And that’s not the worst of it. No one built their campaign around the “women’s issue” of abortion rights more fully than Wendy Davis in Texas. She went down in flames, which included losing the votes of Texas women by nine points. She lost among married women by 25 points, which indicates the shallowness of making birth control and abortion into a campaign issue. It appeals only to young women for whom the issue is perhaps more immediate, but who are also relatively uninformed. Which explains why they don’t realize that this is partly a fake campaign issue: while many Republicans want to limit abortion rights, the Republican campaign against birth control is a bizarre leftist fantasy.
Speaking of birth control, Sandra Fluke, who burst onto the national scene after being called a rude name by Rush Limbaugh because she was agitating for free university-provided condoms, lost her race for a California state senate seat.
So if the “war on women” was such a political loser, does that mean it was a mistake to focus on that issue instead of, say, the economy, or jobs, or foreign policy, or something else?
Well, this implies that Democrats had any choice in the matter. To list the alternative issues for Democrats is to rattle off a series of pretty unpromising topics.
The economy? While we have technically recovered from the financial crisis of 2008, there has been no burst of renewed growth, no “morning again in America” moment when we all feel like the country has gone back to work and there are abundant new opportunities. Instead, we’ve gone from the Great Recession into a Great Stagnation. Same thing for jobs: the unemployment numbers are down, but mostly from workers leaving the labor force, not from millions of new positions being created by employers.
Or take immigration, where President Obama has alienated one bloc of voters by essentially ignoring the immigration laws—while Democrats have alienated a whole other set of voters by failing to accomplish any kind of immigration reform when they controlled Congress.
Midterms are rarely about foreign policy, because it’s an issue Congress can’t do much about, but that issue wasn’t available to Democrats, anyway. President Obama’s recent cascade of catastrophe in that area—particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria—added to the general sense that he is failing as a leader, which dragged down his party’s candidates.
So no, the “war on women” was not an unforced error. It was a forced error. It was a last-ditch effort to find some purchase for Democratic candidates when no other issue was going their way. And it didn’t go their way, either.
This has broad significance because it is a test of the Democrats’ whole strategy for winning future elections. They have put all of their focus on portraying the Republicans as the party of old white men while portraying themselves as the only option for women, blacks, Hispanic voters, and the young. So their long-term electoral strategy is that all of the old white guys are going to slowly die off, and all of the young people and minorities are going to become an “emerging Democratic majority.”
Last night’s election results put this long-term strategy in serious doubt, and not just because of the failure of the “war on women.” Winning Republican candidates included the first female senators from Iowa and West Virginia (Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito), the first popularly elected statewide black candidate from the South (South Carolina Senator Tim Scott), the first black female Republican in Congress (Utah’s Mia Love), the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (New York’s Elise Stefanik), and a host of Hispanic candidates (Nevada’s Brian Sandoval we re-elected with 70% of the vote, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez with 57%).
The 2012 election showed that Barack Obama was still able to rally the votes of young women and minorities, and Democrats are no doubt hoping that Hillary Clinton will be able to do the same in 2016. Yet most of the candidates in seemingly close races that Clinton stumped for—particularly Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky—were defeated.
The Democrats’ dilemma is fundamental. If they could run on the success of their foreign and domestic policies, after six years of being able to put those policies into practice, they would be doing so. Instead, they are forced to rely on frantic appeals to young women and racial minorities. It’s not a smart, forward-thinking strategy. It’s not even a case of mistaken priorities and bad choices. It’s a desperate fallback for a party that isn’t able to run on the issues. And the midterms are a warning that it is all falling apart.