Democrats are wagering that women candidates will help them make a comeback in the South.
It worked six years ago when the party recruited Kay Hagan to defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and Sen. Mary Landrieu won a third term in Louisiana, both with outsized support from women voters.
Now Democrats are applying that model in Kentucky, where Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Georgia, where Michelle Nunn is seeking to replace retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Both have made an appeal to women voters a centerpiece of their campaigns.
Across the South, Democrats have struggled with an inability to attract white, male voters, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “It may be that a female Democratic candidate can do better with female voters than a male candidate can,” he said.
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Mark Pryor, who is seeking a third term in Arkansas, is the only white, male Democratic senator representing a state in the Deep South. Three others – Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida – represent presidential battleground states with Democratic-leaning urban centers.
That stands in stark contrast to 20 years ago, when 13 white, male Democratic senators represented Southern states.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in the November elections to win a Senate majority and control Congress. A Democratic win in Kentucky or Georgia – the Republican-held seats most in jeopardy – would dim those prospects.
Standing at a podium with McConnell looking on, Grimes last month addressed the nearly all-male Kentucky Farm Bureau board of directors at the group’s headquarters a few miles from downtown Louisville.
Although the topic was agriculture, Grimes, 35, repeatedly worked in a critique of McConnell’s record on women’s issues, noting he has opposed renewing the Violence Against Women Act and legislation requiring that women be paid comparably to men. Several times, she referred to herself as “a strong, independent woman.”
“Women are not supposed to just be seen; we will be heard,” Grimes said at one point after McConnell accused her of not directly answering a question. “I speak for myself. I am a strong, independent Kentucky woman.”
Grimes is running only about even with McConnell among women voters in Kentucky and is trailing him in the race, polls show. Still, her backers defend her approach, which they say will help improve the lives of women in the state.
“There’s too much opposition to policies that are coming down,” said Tammy Cashman, 48, a resident of Webster, Ky., who criticized McConnell for not offering what she viewed as a realistic alternative to the 2010 health-care law.
One of Cashman’s three daughters is a minimum-wage earner who works at McDonald’s.
“It’s important that women get equal pay; it’s important that people make a living wage,” she said.
Grimes’s focus on issues important to women will resonate beyond the party’s base, said state Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Louisville-area Democrat.
“We’re going to see young Republican women, a lot of Republican women, be interested in the things that she’s talking about,” Jenkins said.
The Democrats have turned to male candidates in the South in some races, although in states the party is given little chance of winning. Former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers is running against Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi. Attorney Gordon Ball is challenging Republican Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, and state Sen. Brad Hutto is going up against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
“The party realignment in the South has made it more important for Democratic candidates to motivate young people, black voters and women” as white men have increasingly become Republicans, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Democrats are looking to replicate voting patterns that helped Hagan defeat incumbent Republican Dole in 2008. That year, the Democrat benefited from a 14-point edge among women voters, according to exit polling.
This time, Hagan leads state House Speaker Thom Tillis by 18 percentage points among women, according to a Suffolk University/USA Today poll conducted Aug. 16-19.
Nunn, 47, who took a leave of absence as head of Points of Light, a nonprofit group that promotes volunteerism, also is leading among women voters. She held an 18-point advantage with them over Republican David Perdue, the former chief executive officer of Dollar General, in a Landmark Communications poll conducted Aug. 20-21. Nunn is running slightly behind Perdue, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls.
In contrast, Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, led McConnell among women voters by just one point – 45 percent to 44 percent – in a Bluegrass poll conducted Aug. 25-27.
“If she can’t get female voters to break more towards her than they’re doing now, then I don’t see how she can win this race,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “It’s unlikely the men will budge.”
In stump speeches, television ads and campaign emails, Grimes has sought to gain women’s support by casting herself as far friendlier to them than her opponent.
In one ad, she appears alongside Ilene Woods, a Lynch, Ky., resident. Woods demands to know why McConnell twice opposed the pay and domestic violence legislation. Grimes, after a pause, says, “I can never get him to answer this one either,” adding, “Senator, you must be forgetting that over half the voters in Kentucky are women like Ilene.”
About 53 percent of Kentucky’s registered voters are women, as are about 70 percent of the state’s minimum wage earners. Kentucky women earn 76 cents for every dollar men earn, slightly less than the national average of 77 cents per dollar.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – a star in the Democratic Party – campaigned with Grimes in June as part of the effort to energize women voters.
Grimes’s campaign also has held roundtables with small- business owners, organized women to work phone banks calling other women, and enlisted the help of Grimes’s grandmother with an initiative targeting older voters dubbed “Grannies for Grimes.”
Some Kentucky women say they find her emphasis on gender off-putting.
“Sometimes I think that we can talk about our sexuality a little more than we need to,” said Betty Farris, 71, of Roundhill, adding that she wished Grimes would focus more on her accomplishments as secretary of state.
Farris, who attended last month’s farm bureau forum, said after hearing from both candidates she was more inclined to support McConnell, in part because of his almost 30 years of Senate experience.
“Being a good, strong, Kentucky woman didn’t influence me that much,” she said. “If I had to vote today, I’d probably vote for Senator McConnell.”
Other women who are supporting McConnell acknowledge that some female voters might be swayed by Grimes’s pitch to them.
“There are a lot of women who appreciate that very much and will vote for her just because of that, regardless of her stand on issues, her history or even her party,” said Terry Gilbert, 57, of Danville. “I think there will be people who will cross party lines because she is a woman.”
Grimes and Nunn are years younger than their male opponents and both have strong political pedigrees. Nunn is the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn. Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former Kentucky Democratic chairman and state representative.
Some of the highest-profile Democratic women are pitching in to help party candidates: First lady Michelle Obama yesterday attended a private fundraiser and a rally in Atlanta to benefit Nunn, and potential 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton is hosting a fundraiser tonight at her Washington home to aid the Democratic Women’s Senate Network.
McConnell has mounted a counter-effort to reach out to women, putting his wife – former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao – front and center. A TV ad released last month featured Chao defending McConnell’s record on women’s issues and criticizing Grimes.
“Have you ever noticed how some liberals feel entitled to speak on behalf of all women, as if every woman agrees with Barack Obama?” Chao says in the ad. “Alison Lundergan Grimes’s gender-based attacks are desperate and false.”
EMILY’s List, a political action committee that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, favors both Grimes and Nunn. The group started a $1 million ad campaign late last month targeting Perdue over a pay-discrimination suit that women employees brought against Dollar General when he headed the company.
“The Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is really relying on success in these Southern races,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in an interview. “We’ve got candidates in all these states that are talking about just providing a fair shot for women and families.”