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Grenell: Who won the 'war on women'? It's not so easy to call

"In the end, the great irony of this election cycle may be that the Republican Party's loss also strikes a blow to the women they oppose," writes Alexis Grenell. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

The much-talked about 2012 "war on women" arrived at the ballot box on Tuesday, but it's not so easy to call a winner. While candidates who expressed extremist views on rape were defeated, and women's numbers in the Senate grew to an all-time high of 20, the continued polarization of the Republican Party may in fact hurt the political prospects of a women's policy agenda from a long-term view.

In 2008 John McCain attempted to make inroads into the female base of the Democratic Party -- some members of whom were still smarting from Sen. Barack Obama's primary victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton -- by nominating a far-right running mate who happened to have a pair of ovaries.

The apparent thinking was that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would somehow woo Hillary supporters into an estrogen-induced coma. But Republicans proceeded to lose the women's vote by more than 13 percentage points that year. As it turned out, having a woman on the ticket is not enough to offset an agenda with anti-woman elements.

Since then, it's been all downhill.

In 2012, Republicans continued to lose the women's vote by fatal margins -- even in reliably red states -- by making terrifying comments about rape. Republicans lost last week because female voters of all stripes confirmed what liberals have long asserted: that social conservatism encapsulates, among other things, an antiquated view about gender equality.

In Indiana, which Gov. Mitt Romney won easily, the Republican nominee for Senate, Richard Mourdock, said that a pregnancy caused by a rape is what "God intended." Well, women clearly did not intend to let Mourdock get away with that, helping to hand the election to Democrat Joe Donnelly. According to exit polls, Donnelly received 53 percent of the women's vote, compared with Mourdock's 41. The real rub is that exit polling found that the moderate, pro-life, 30-year incumbent, Sen. Richard Lugar -- whom Mourdock ousted in the primary -- would've easily beat Donnelly.

Todd Akin's infamous comments about "legitimate rape" secured Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill's re-election. The Democrat, once viewed as vulnerable, won with 58 percent of the women's vote, compared with Akin's 36, and she received a whopping 67 percent of votes from moderates.

And in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McConnell tried to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds as a condition of a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy legally, Democrat Tim Kaine campaigned heavily against the unpopular bill and won a Senate seat against George Allen with 56 percent of the women's vote.

The list goes on, with Democrats defeating down-ticket Republican candidates like Wisconsin Assemb. Roger Rivard, who said, in commenting about a controversial sexual assault case, his father once told him that "some girls rape easy."

Throughout the campaign, Republicans tried to spin the "war on women" -- which, in addition to out-of-touch comments about rape, played out over such issues as insurance coverage for birth control and access to abortion -- by claiming that women cared most about the economy and wouldn't mistake rhetoric for policy. They were right. Women -- who voted for Obama 55 percent, to 44 percent for Romney -- seemed to understand that Romney's policies were in opposition to their interests, economic and otherwise. Romney wanted to gut the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, give tax breaks to the wealthy, and said he would be a pro-life president who would follow President George W. Bush's lead in Supreme Court appointments.

When you consider that women make up two-thirds of minimum wage earners, low-cost health care and reproductive self-determination are inextricable from concerns about the economy. And no woman, whether low- or high-income, could be so foolish as to confuse "binders full of women" for an actual anti-discrimination policy.

There was a moment at the second presidential debate at Hofstra University that epitomized the partisan divide on gender. In explaining why he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, President Barack Obama said that pay equity is an economic issue: "Women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women's issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue."

Obama recognized women's success as an indication of the overall success of the economy. In weak contrast, Romney's solution to workplace discrimination was to suggest that employers would "be so anxious to get good workers" that they would even "be anxious to hire women."

Tanya Melich, author of "The Republican War Against Women," is not at all surprised. After a lifetime of membership, Melich quit the party in 2000 and is an independent, although she identifies as a Democrat. "The Republicans have been moving toward this extreme for years," she said. The extremism of the party has also had a devastating impact internally, with centrists like Maine's Sen. Olympia Snowe choosing not to seek re-election after three decades in office. As a moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay rights Republican, she no longer has a place in the national party. Explaining her retirement in a Washington Post op-ed, Snowe wrote, "I see a critical need to engender public support for the political center, for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us."

Similarly, long-serving Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a pro-choice moderate Republican from Texas, also chose not to seek re-election.

Next term, Senate Republicans will have just four women in their conference, with one new member from Nebraska. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats added four women to their ranks, from states as politically diverse as Wisconsin, North Dakota, Massachusetts and Hawaii, bringing their total to 16.

While the rise of extremism in the Republican Party may help get Democrats elected, it's not necessarily good for a women's policy agenda. With no alternative to the Democrats, women risk being perceived as safe votes for that party. A moderate Republican Party is actually better for women's interests -- it forces both parties to develop policies that keep them competitive for female voters.

The women's movement in America will suffer as centrists continue to lose primaries or resign from office. In the end, the great irony of this election cycle may be that the Republican Party's loss also strikes a blow to the woman-friendly policies they oppose.

Alexis Grenell is a Democratic political communications strategist.

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