This fall, gender could be the determining divide in New York State.
Women have become an enduring majority of the New York State electorate. In both 2010 and 2012, exit polls revealed that women cast 53 percent of the statewide vote.
And most of those women voted for Democrats. In 2010, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo carried 67 percent of the female vote, while President Barack Obama carried 69 percent in 2012. It's basic math: Republicans can't win elections in New York if they're losing the female majority by 2-to-1 margins.
In 2012, this gender gap paved the way for New York Democrats to hold three contested congressional seats -- including Rep. Tim Bishop's in Southampton -- while recapturing up two of the seats they lost in 2010. Gender was also a critical factor in the Democrats' ability to pick up three State Senate seats in 2012.
Around the nation, female voters are tugged by their race, religion, region, age, economic and marital status. Highly educated women, single women and minority women from metropolitan clusters are more likely to vote Democratic than older, married women from small towns, who lean to the GOP. Those trends are even more pronounced in New York. So issues that are front and center for women are critical.
In 2010, GOP candidates around the country showed great discipline. There was almost no mention of abortion or contraception in their campaigns, and GOP candidates narrowly carried the women's vote -- by 2 percent, according to exit polls -- enabling the party to win control of the House of Representatives.
By contrast, in 2012, the highly charged contraception and equal-pay debates led to Democrats carrying women by 11 percent, re-electing Obama, holding the U.S. Senate and reducing the GOP's House majority.
Which brings us to New York in 2014, where two issues threaten Republican prospects.
In March, the Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby case was argued in the Supreme Court. At issue: whether an employer has the right to deny contraception coverage to its employees based upon the owner's religious beliefs. If the court issues a broad decision that knocks out the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, the backlash from women nationally and in New York could be substantial by November.
New York's female majority will also be asking where candidates stand on Cuomo's Women's Equality Act. This plank of 10 bills, first introduced in 2013 and back again this year, would secure equal pay, end pregnancy discrimination and heighten prohibitions against sexual harassment in the workplace. It would combat domestic violence and human trafficking. And it would preserve reproductive health through the codification of Roe v. Wade.
The protections for abortion rights are controversial, and Republican senators oppose them. So the GOP's conundrum here in New York is real: Anything labeled pro-abortion rights is a tough sell in Republican primaries. But both polling data and voting returns have established that when Roe v. Wade protections and workplace protections are in controversy, candidates who favor abortion rights and gender equity prosper in our state. If female voters are energized, can Republican senators safely oppose the Women's Equality Act?
If the contraception mandate is struck down and the Women's Equality Act is not passed by the State Senate, that will provide the Cuomo-led Democrats with two potent issues this fall. With these two issues paving the way, Democrats could run to daylight in November among New York's female majority.