A woman watches the program during the third day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, August 29, 2012.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

How the GOP can win back women

In Nevada last week, the state Republican Party quietly made a significant decision: to remove its opposition to abortion and gay marriage from its party platform.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen a spike in dangerous state laws that severely limit a woman’s constitutional right to access legal abortion. We’ve seen Republican party leaders and their allies in the anti-choice movement crow about their victories. But across the country, we’re also seeing signs that many in the GOP are beginning to understand the severe cost of an agenda so far out of step with most Americans.

After the GOP suffered significant defeats in 2012, the party took a long, hard look at shifting attitudes and demographic trends, and came to a stark conclusion: It needed to re-brand or risk losing women voters for the foreseeable future. In its famous postmortem report, the Republican National Committee said the party must be “conscious of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women.” The “legitimate rape” comment by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s “it’s something God intended” line set off a firestorm in part because women recognized what was really behind them: a deep-seated, regressive perspective on women’s roles and real lives in the GOP’s anti-abortion policies.

The GOP leadership’s failure to win women voters has emboldened a long-silenced faction of the party that believes elected politicians should not be making the most deeply personal decisions for their constituents, but instead should trust women to do what’s best for ourselves and our families.

Last week, medical doctor and Republican state Rep. Doug Cox broke ranks with his colleagues in deep-red Oklahoma to vote against a bill in the state legislature that would restrict access to emergency contraception. Dr. Cox was surprised to be flooded with positive messages from people in Oklahoma and across the country who lauded his courageous stand. While Dr. Cox is personally opposed to abortion, he understands where the line is drawn between his personal morality and his responsibility to best serve his constituents. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I resent the government stepping into that exam room and standing between me and the patient, and standing between the patient and the patient’s choices.” In the same week, former RNC Chairman Michael Steele told Politico he has seen the damage extreme positions against women’s rights are doing to the traditional GOP.

Yet the positions expressed by Cox and Steele are still a tiny minority among the GOP leadership and elected officials. The same day the Nevada GOP removed anti-abortion language from its platform, it also endorsed virulently anti-choice Congressmen Joe Heck and Mark Amodei.

Gov. Mike Huckabee’s claim, made from the stage at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, that contraception is for women who “cannot control their libido,” still looms large in people’s minds. And GOP-held state houses are responsible for a shocking number of laws passed in the last three years that roll back women’s rights and access to health care in a way that endangers our lives. This is why so many Republican men and women devoted to reducing government interference in personal decisions are leaving the party.

The GOP’s attempts to cover these offenses are even more insulting. Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn recently claimed the GOP had advanced women’s rights, and used that line in an attempt to justify her party’s opposition to equal pay for women. It’s no wonder the GOP’s rhetoric on their commitment to women rings hollow. Republicans regularly undercut and contradict it with their own actions.

Words alone will never be enough. Republicans won’t win women voters until they drop their ideology that says women shouldn’t be allowed to decide for themselves how to have a family, that women only need birth control if there’s something wrong with them, that women should live their lives the way these people tell them to.

“Republicans won’t win women voters until they drop their ideology that says women shouldn’t be allowed to decide for themselves how to have a family, that women only need birth control if there’s something wrong with them, that women should live their lives the way these people tell them to.”
Still, change is possible. Recent history is full of examples of Republicans winning elections while publicly stating their pro-choice values, as well as anti-choice Democrats changing their views based on real-life experience. In 2002, NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsed the Republican opponent of Democrat Mike Michaud of Maine, because we believed he would better safeguard reproductive rights. Michaud went on to win the election to Congress, and over the next dozen years shifted his position on abortion access after listening to his constituents’ stories about the personal, often difficult, situations they faced. This year, we’ve endorsed him in his campaign to be Maine’s next governor.

Michaud has come to realize that the fundamental freedoms and values of his constituents must come first – and that means standing up for a woman’s reproductive rights. Seven in 10 people in America believe in the principles enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Those who would put obstacles in the way of women seeking abortion care are the ones on the fringe.

It would appear Republicans in Nevada are starting to see the way forward. The rest of their party had better join them, or all the rebranding efforts in the world will be for nothing. The wind is at the backs of those of us who stand up for women.

Ilyse Hogue is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Abortion, Health Care and War On Women

How the GOP can win back women