There are few political gaffes bigger than the one GOP Rep. Todd Akin made during his 2012 Senate race to unseat Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill. Akin was ahead in the polls when he dropped this bomb on an unsuspecting public: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down." Two months later, he lost by 14 points.
Fellow Republican senate hopeful Richard Mourdock found himself in similar trouble. During an October debate, the Indiana state treasurer said that he didn't believe abortion is appropriate even if the pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault. "I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," he explained. Mourdock lost what was once considered a safe Republican seat by six points.
These are the kinds of mistakes GOP leaders are hoping to avoid during the 2014 midterms — and they're not leaving anything to chance. To ensure their candidates don't alienate female voters next year, Republicans are holding meetings with top aides to teach them what to say about women's issues — especially if they happen to be running against a female candidate.
Not only did the blunders cost Republicans a handful of key races they might otherwise have won, but they also allowed the Democrats to paint the entire party — including presidential candidate Mitt Romney — as hostile to women's issues. (The fact that the GOP platform proposed a strict ban on abortion without exceptions for rape and incest didn't help either.) After Romney lost, Republicans embarked on a rebranding campaign designed to improve its image with women and minorities.
But as Politico reported this morning, the party still has a long way to go. "Let me put it this way, some of these guys have a lot to learn," one staffer told the website.
Whether Republicans can win over female voters just by refining the way they talk about women remains to be seen. Indeed, where they stand on issues like access to contraception and fair pay are probably more important to female voters than whether they are on message at a debate. In the past few years, for example, the GOP has not only hindered the expansion of Medicaid but has tried to drastically cut the program by proposing a block-grant funding model. More than two-thirds of Medicaid's beneficiaries are women.
The Republican-led House weakened the Violence Against Women Act by eliminating protection for gay, Native American, student, and immigrant victims. Several Republican governors and Republican-led state houses have enacted strict abortion bans. GOP lawmakers have undermined contraception coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act. They've also blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would close loopholes that allow pay discrimination to continue under the Equal Pay Act.
Come next year, at least 10 Republican male incumbents will be facing female Democratic challengers, though that number could grow. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose office is leading some of the "Women 101" discussions, realizes that those numbers could be a problem for his side of the aisle. "When you look around the Congress, there are a lot more females in the Democrat caucus than there are in the Republican caucus," he said.
His solution? Republicans need to be a little more warm and fuzzy. "Some of our members just aren't as sensitive as they ought to be," Boehner added.