Credit: Jason Pramas for Open Media Boston, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)--The failed U.S. Senate candidacies of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock and Missouri Rep. Todd Akin are widely seen as payback for the GOP-led "war on women."
Both politicians became notorious for comments about rape and pregnancy that turned them into symbols of an extremist anti-choice agenda that in the past year began extending to the formerly safe subject of birth control.
"I think that directly affected their candidacies," said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
In Indiana, Mourdock won only 42 percent of female voters, a large gap from Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, who won 52 percent of women in the state, reported the Christian Science Monitor. That data suggested that some Republican voters split their ticket to lodge a protest.
In Missouri, the percentage of women voting for incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, Akin's opponent, increased on Tuesday compared to 2006, reported the Associated Press. Younger women and African American women supported McCaskill in large numbers.
But while abortion, contraception, pay equity and even Romney's debate-night reference to "binders full of women" were significant in swaying female voters, Carroll said those issues do not form the primary national basis of the gender gap.
The real basis, she said, was differing outlooks between men and women on the role of government, with women more inclined to support social safety nets.
On Election Day, CNN exit polling found 55 percent of women and 45 percent of men voted for Obama, producing a 10-point gender gap; the second-largest ever, according to Carroll.
Yet in 2008, Obama won 56 percent of the women's vote and 49 percent of the men's vote, meaning that although the gap widened this year, Obama's share of women essentially remained stable and he slipped among men.
Carroll said that data might suggest the women's vote was unchanged this year. But she also noted that one could conclude Romney's economic arguments swayed men, while "women weren't buying into it."
More Women in Congress
The election will bolster women's numbers in Congress.
In January, the Senate will move from 17 to 20 women, as five new women go to D.C. while two--longtime Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas--retire.
Five Democratic women and one Republican woman--incumbent McCaskill and first-timers Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, Heidi Heitkamp and Deb Fischer--won their races.
In the House, there will be at least 77 women in 2013, up from 73, giving them 17.7 percent representation in the lower chamber.
While some women's rights activists are celebrating the gains, Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, president and CEO of the Washington-based Women's Campaign Fund, which supports pro-choice female candidates, curbed her enthusiasm, calling it "pathetic to be excited about 17 to 18 percent."
After the "year of woman" in 1992, Bennett said it was widely assumed that the problem of too few women would "organically fix itself." Since that didn't happen, she stressed that it remained incumbent upon the women who won to encourage far more women to run for office.
"Research shows that you need to have at least 30 percent of women in the room in order for them to be able to collectively make a difference," she said.
Pro-choice activists could also take satisfaction in the outcome of some races for the U.S. House of Representatives.
In New York, longtime anti-abortion rights activist Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle lost to Dan Maffei.
In Illinois, Rep. Joe Walsh--who said during his campaign that he opposed abortion even in the case of the mother's life because "you can't find once instance" when that happens -- lost to military veteran Tammy Duckworth.
The Women's Campaign Fund's Bennett said that anti-choice rhetoric has been growing since Ronald Reagan's presidency, "which made legislators feel pretty safe coming out in the way they did in this election cycle." Bennett expects the fallout of the elections to curb anti-choice rhetoric. Whether the GOP will back off anti-choice legislation at the state and federal level is another matter, she says, that "remains to be seen."
'Thrilled About Election'
"MomsRising was thrilled about the election," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, president of MomsRising, a nonprofit advocacy group focusing on issues like paid sick leave, parental leave and health care. "Our issues -- health care, access to health care, access to reproductive health care -- were heard. Fifty-six percent of voting moms cast ballot for Obama," she said, citing Fox News exit polls.
"I think that this election cycle, more than any I've seen in my 20-plus years in politics, truly defined how extreme the anti-choice side has become," said Beth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Women "rejected Republican backwards looking agenda," said Jess McIntosh, spokesperson for EMILY's List, the Washington PAC that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women.
But those groups didn't just rely on the zeitgeist during the campaign; they also spent plenty of money for each of their victories.
"We had our largest independent expenditures in organizational history," McIntosh said.
Independent expenditures rose significantly due to the impact of super PACs. EMILY's List super PAC arm, Women VOTE! spent over $7 million.
The PAC itself spent over $30 million this election cycle--more than the roughly $27 million it spent in 2010 but less than the $35 million spent in 2008.
NARAL Pro-Choice America's independent expenditure arm spent $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared to $525,000 in 2010. The organization told Women's eNews that it spent about $3.3 million in all.
The group also identified potential female pro-choice Obama "defectors," or those who voted Obama in 2008 but were no longer strong supporters, in 25 battleground counties. The organization then worked to persuade these women to vote for the president through a mixture of phone and email outreach, online advertising and cable advertising.
Married Prefer Romney
Broken down by marital status, a small national majority--53 percent -- of married women favored Romney, while 67 percent of non-married women favored Obama, according to Washington Post exit polling.
Non-married women came out this election in larger numbers; 23 percent in 2012 compared to 20 percent in 2008.
Democrats picked up about seven House seats –far below the 25 they needed to gain a majority, reported The Hill, meaning that the Republican Party maintains control of the House.
NARAL Pro-Choice America's Shipp said of the House elections and pro-choice candidates, "We knew it was not going to be a watershed election," but that gains were made, arguing, "We did make some significant gains with pro-choice candidates."
In fact, some of them defeated pro-choice Republicans on Tuesday. Moderate Rep. Judy Biggert, representing Chicago's southwest suburbs, lost after serving in the House since 1999 to NARAL-endorsed Bill Foster. In New Hampshire, Ann McLane Kuster beat Rep. Charlie Bass--a rematch from 2010, when Kuster lost.
"We are devastated at the loss of Scott Brown in the Senate and our good friends Judy Biggert and Mary Bono, Charles Bass and Robert Dold and Nan Hayworth . . . they were all stalwarts for our cause," Ann Stone, founder and chair of Republicans for Choice, said in an email interview.
Stone added that, "Several of these pro-choice warriors were wrongly portrayed as not being pro-choice or not pro-choice enough . . . that is disgraceful . . . For them to stand up for this principle in a party which is hostile to them takes a hell of a lot more courage than a Democrat doing so in their party."
Samantha Kimmey is a writer focusing on women and politics this election season.
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