On a coal-themed bus tour in Western Kentucky Friday, Senator Mitch McConnell read from a familiar culture-war playbook: “This is about you,” he said, according to WBKO. “Do we want to save this country from these folks? These people who look down their noses at us. The White House is full of a bunch of community organizers and college professors who think they’re smarter than we are,” said McConnell, who is currently serving as minority leader and has been in Washington since 1985.
But on Kentucky airwaves, fighting a serious challenge from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell has tried to portray himself in another light entirely, one arguably as awkward as the firebrand populist role: As a champion of women.
The senator who voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act released an ad this week featuring a bunch of young women avowing their support for him. (The one who says Grimes wants her to believe “strong women and strong values are incompatible” is registered in Pennsylvania, The New York Times reported Friday.) The man who declined to vote for an expanded Violence Against Women Act in 2012 has one ad touting his support for a narrower act to chip away at the rape kit backlog, and another from a woman who says McConnell helped her regain custody of her daughter.
The Republican incumbent can take heart from the most recent poll showing no significant gender gap. Since Democrats usually enjoy an advantage with female voters and the GOP with men, it was a surprise to see Grimes and McConnell each tied with both. On the other hand, it may be an outlier. Other polls have found otherwise, including the Big Red Poll, released around the same time, found Grimes leading among female voters 51-36, while McConnell took men’s votes by a wider margin, 55-33.
Grimes has repeatedly hammered McConnell on his equal pay vote. She has campaigned with Hillary Clinton, who mentioned women’s rights repeatedly during their stump appearance together, and she has the support of the Democratic women in the Senate. She has noticeably stayed away from discussing reproductive rights, which have dominated Democratic campaigns in Colorado, Alaska, and North Carolina, presumably on the assumption that Kentucky voters are less sympathetic on the issue.
Kentucky looks a lot like the rest of the country when it comes to the demographic makeup of midterm elections: Women, especially women of color, can tip the scales for Democrats, but they tend to stay home in non-presidential years.
According to exit polls, Kentucky women made up 54% of the electorate in 2008, and African-Americans made up 11%. A strong showing for Obama among black women in particular tipped the overall female vote in his favor, netting him 56% of women. That’s despite the fact that white women voted a lot like white men did, going for McCain 63-36. (McCain won the state overall by 16 points; Romney went on to win it by 22 points.) But during the 2010 election – the one that put Senator Rand Paul in office – female turnout dipped to 50% of those casting ballots, and African-American turnout sank to 6%. Notably, Rand Paul did worse with white women than McCain had two years earlier, getting only 54% of their votes compared to 63% of white men.
Grimes has been making a lower-key appeal to African-American voters with radio ads featuring Georgia Powers, a Louisville-based civil rights advocate, saying, “Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are trying to take away our right to vote,” referring to his support for a national voter ID law and for felon disenfranchisement. (A McConnell spokeswoman mystifyingly referred to the ads as one “an unscrupulous losing candidate may have considered running 50 years ago that we all collectively hoped was left in the past.”)
The African-American vote in Kentucky is stymied by the fact that Kentucky has some of the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement laws in the country. In Kentucky, nearly one out of every four African-Americans cannot vote, triple the national rate.
McConnell has been careful so far to avoid any comments that could be perceived as sexist. It has been over a year since a Republican spokesman referred to Grimes as an “empty dress,” and there have been few comments about women for Democrats to pounce on.
“I’ve interacted with him a fair bit,” said University of Louisville political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck, “and he’s not the type of politician I would expect to make a blunder in talking about a female candidate.” Of course, the so-called “war of women” is about more than gaffes – it’s about policy. But that doesn’t always break through the noise.