Quick action on Fluke post was the right move, but GOP still faces challenges with women

Last week BDN blogger Mike Tipping broke the news that the Maine Republican Party’s Facebook page had an obnoxious post on Sandra Fluke, which was followed by a series of nasty comments about her.

Fluke became a public figure after she was attacked by Rush Limbaugh for her testimony in favor of including birth control as part of the package of preventive medicine for which people don’t have to pony up a copay.

Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and, demonstrating his lack of understanding of the policy issue and the way contraception works said, “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

To his credit, Maine GOP Chair Rick Bennett quickly had the Facebook post taken down and apologized for its posting.

Bennett’s action was both politically smart and the right thing to do 

Rick Bennett is an highly intelligent, savvy and competent center-right Republican leader who surely saw the post as wrong, in bad taste and politically counterproductive. And so he acted rapidly.

Nationally Republicans have had a hard time appealing to women voters – and the consequences have been horrific.

In 2012, women were the majority of voters and a majority of women voted for President Obama over former Gov. Mitt Romney.

From "How Women Changed the Outcome of the Election," Center for American Progress, December 12, 2012

From “How Women Changed the Outcome of the Election,” Center for American Progress, December 12, 2012

In 2012, issues like abortion and birth control mattered to women’s votes, but so did health care, education and the economy.

Still, reproductive control was certainly an important part of the election. In Virginia, a proposed policy would have required transvaginal probes for women seeking an abortion. And high profile comments like Limbaugh’s as well as several Republican elected U.S. Senate candidates added up to what Democrats and some commentators called the “war on women.”

A recent poll from CNN shows that the Republican Party’s image is still suffering 

Respondents were asked, “Do you think the Republican Party generally understands the problems and concerns of women?”  42% said yes, 55% no and 4% were unsure.

Those numbers do not look all that horrible, except when compared to what happened when people were asked, Do you think the Democratic Party generally understands the problems and concerns of women?”  63% said yes, 33% no and 3% were unsure.

GOP Chair Rick Bennett’s quick action was a good move, for if the Facebook post and comments had stayed up, it could have become a bigger story and played to people’s images of the party as unconcerned with women’s needs and interests.

However, attracting and keeping women voters will require attention to other concerns as well. 

As noted above, women care about issues besides birth control and abortion. Women as a group are more likely than men to want active government engagement on ensuring broader health coverage, improving education, and promoting jobs and economic equality. On average, women earn less than men.

And thus, these additional findings from the same CNN poll cited above, show the Republican party will likely face other challenges in attracting women voters.

When people were asked, “Do you think the policies of the Republican Party favor the rich, favor the middle class, or favor the poor?,” 69% said they favor the rich, 23% said the middle class, and 3% the poor, with 4% unsure.

In contrast, when respondents were asked, “Do you think the policies of the Democratic Party favor the rich, favor the middle class, or favor the poor?,” 30% said they favor the rich, 36% said the middle class, and 30% the poor, with 3% unsure.

In addition, two recent polls, one from the Pew Research Center and one from CNN show that strong majorities want government to act to improve income inequality, but far fewer Republicans than independents and Democrats want government action.

The quick move on the Fluke post was the smart and right move, one which prevented a small embarrassing event from ballooning into something bigger.

But only by some combination of new policies and new communication strategies can the Republican Party gain greater support from women voters.

Medicaid expansion is an important issue for women in part because lack of insurance affects so much for them (and their families)

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) explains:

Nineteen million U.S. women, aged 18–64 years, are uninsured and face adverse health outcomes associated with lack of insurance. Compared with insured women, uninsured women receive less preventive care and disease treatment, are more likely to have diagnoses of advanced stage disease, and have higher mortality rates from certain diseases:

  • Uninsured pregnant women receive fewer prenatal care services than insured women and are more likely to experience adverse maternal outcomes such as pregnancy-related hypertension and placental abruption. Adverse outcomes, such as low birth weight and infant mortality, also are more common among uninsured women. Improved maternal and fetal outcomes occur with access to high-risk pregnancy care, counseling, and other enabling services Ir women. . .
  • Uninsured women with breast cancer are 30–50% more likely to die from cancer or cancer complications than insured women with breast cancer.
  • Uninsured women are 60% more likely than insured women to receive a diagnosis of late-stage cervical cancer.

Because coverage is so important for women’s health, the ACOG advocates Medicaid expansion.

Some final notes: 1. The gender gap in voter preference has been around for more than three decades and occurs whether or not the candidate is male or female. 2. Although women have voted for Democratic candidates in numbers higher than male voters since 1980, there are plenty of elections in which majorities of women vote for the Republican candidate. 3. Issues and candidates vary by year and place, and it remains hard to win an election if women, who are a majority of voters, vote against one’s candidate.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.