A set of four Republican Senate candidates who announced their support for over-the-counter birth control had hoped that doing so would put their Democratic counterparts on defense. But many are panning the move as a frantic response to undeniably bad poll numbers among women voters.
Recently, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), businessman Mike McFadden (R-MN), and Rob Maness (R-LA) all voiced their support for over-the-counter birth control. They all also happen to be running for Senate, mostly in purple states. Maness in Louisiana is an obvious exception, until you realize he’s running as a distant third-place candidate in a jungle primary against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA).
So why the sudden rush to support over-the-counter birth control? A look at the data may provide a clue: In the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama happened to handily win women voters in these candidates’ states — even when he lost the state overall.
According to CNN exit poll data, Obama won Colorado 51 percent to 46 percent and led among women 51 percent to 48 percent. Obama won Minnesota 53 percent to 45 percent and led among women 60 percent to 38 percent. In North Carolina Obama lost by a 2-point margin, but still won among women 51 percent to 49 percent.
Katie Parker Gage, a former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney who now runs Burning Glass Consulting, which boosts Republican women candidates, claims that the support for over-the-counter birth control is a way for candidates “to very firmly state that they do support women having access to birth control.”
Republicans pushing over-the-counter birth control can say, per Gage, “‘Hey Democrats put your money where your mouth is.’ If you agree with us then support our position that it should be so easy for adult women to have access that they should be able to buy it over the counter, just like they buy Advil.”
EMILY’s List spokeswoman Marcy Stetch countered this idea.
“If they really cared about issues that mattered to women they wouldn’t have spent years politicizing not only access to birth control or access to healthcare, but also their paychecks,” she said to TPM. “So this is really an election year political move for Republicans to try and play to a demographic that they need desperately to win in November.”
Indeed, a conservative poll first reported by Politico in late August found the GOP is having serious trouble winning women voters. And in North Carolina, for example, a Suffolk University poll found Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) leading Tillis 52 percent to 34 percent among women voters. Gage said the shift didn’t follow from the polling.
“That had nothing to do with it. This is an issue that we’ve been talking about as a party going back to 2012,” Gage insisted, referring to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) 2012 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal proposing the policy. “That’s the first time that we saw the Democrats very overtly and aggressively just lying about our candidates position on this issue.”
But it’s not working for Cosmopolitan magazine, which took the unusual step on Tuesday of actually endorsing candidates. They picked Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) over Gardner, citing the representative’s previous backing of controversial “personhood” measures that define life as beginning at fertilization. Gardner’s name “still appears on a proposed federal personhood law, and even the president of Personhood USA says Gardner is just ‘playing politics’ in this election, because he has ‘built his entire political career on support of personhood,'” the endorsement said.
One of the key claims of the Republican move is that they say costs will decline under their proposal. But The New Republic’s Rebecca Leber recently pointed out that thanks to Obamacare, the pill and various other types of contraception fall under the category of preventative care and are therefore covered by insurance without out-of-the pocket expenses. In other words, women would spend more on birth control under the Republican plan.
A statement from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released on Tuesday said that over-the-counter access to contraception should be part of a “broader dialogue about improving women’s health care, preventing unintended pregnancies, and increasing use of contraception, including long-acting reversible contraception.”
Indeed, while Republicans like Tillis and Gardner may now support easier access to over-the-counter contraception, critics note that in the past they still support Personhood restrictions or voted for defunding women’s groups that distribute birth control, Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens told TPM.
She recalled that when Congress voted on funding that affected her group, only “six or seven Republican senators” had the courage to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide reproductive services. For them, “it wasn’t even about abortion,” Laguens said, but “we don’t see them much as candidates in these last couple of years.”