Opinion

Why isn't Alison Lundergan Grimes beating Mitch McConnell among women voters?

A 72-year-old conservative man is running even among women with his 34-year-old Democratic female opponent

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is in a tough re-election fight with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D). But somewhat amazingly, McConnell — who, let's face it, fits the "old white man in a suit" description to a T, particularly when contrasted with a 34-year-old female opponent — seems to be defying the gender gap better than almost any male Republican in recent memory.

McConnell is ahead overall. FiveThirtyEight pegs his odds of victory at 75 percent. And with Republicans needing a net pickup of six seats to flip the Senate, and with McConnell on the cusp of becoming majority leader, the stakes in Kentucky couldn't be higher. But what has gotten little attention is how McConnell has avoided falling prey to the "war on women" narrative that Democrats love to skewer Republicans with.

In two Bluegrass Polls, conducted in July and August, respectively, by SurveyUSA, Grimes led among women by a single measly percent. This was corroborated by an August PPP poll, which also found Grimes with just a one-point lead among women. And a Fox News poll released yesterday showed Grimes with just a two-point lead among women.

Nobody would have expected that McConnell, running against a 34-year-old Democratic woman, would have parity with her among female voters. But he does. So how has he done it?

Back in January of 2013, Ashley Parker explained in The New York Times how McConnell's team planned to handle the gender issue, noting: "Given recent struggles that Republican Senate contenders have had with women's issues, Mr. McConnell's advisers say they intend to confront head-on the criticism Democrats have already begun leveling against him on issues they view as particularly important to female voters."

Indeed they have.

Part of the story is that the senator has a long track record of surrounding himself with female colleagues, and of helping put them in leadership positions. As the Times noted, "An analysis by LegiStorm, an online database that tracks congressional staff members" showed that McConnell's "staff in his Washington office is 54 percent female, putting him in the top third of senators in terms of hiring and employing women."

McConnell has also deployed credible female surrogates to make his case on the campaign trail. Perhaps his most persuasive and important surrogate is his wife, Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. She stars in this McConnell campaign ad:

Team McConnell has deployed female surrogates to star in ads, write op-eds, talk to reporters — you name it. The messaging that keeps getting repeated is that "supporting the Obama agenda isn't pro-woman, it's anti-Kentucky." McConnell surrogates — many of them women — have effectively hammered this message for more than a year.

Additionally, McConnell has done a good job of actually explaining his record — and blunting attacks on it. For example, he ran ads that explain (as this fact check confirms) that McConnell "was a co-sponsor of the original [Violence Against Women Act] in 1991, and he has twice supported its reauthorization." When Democrats tried to make hay out of his opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, PolitiFact pushed back thusly: "The ad from the DNC makes sweeping generalizations about what McConnell opposed, to the point of distorting what the votes actually signified. When we dug into the nitty gritty of the Senate votes, we found that McConnell supported alternatives or objected to the legislation for other reasons."

And indeed, there are a surprising number of Democratic attacks on McConnell dealing with women's issues that have been debunked by fact-checking sites. That's no coincidence. It is surely at least in part thanks to the work of McConnell's aggressive campaign staff.

Another key factor: Many Kentucky Democratic voters do not share the national Democratic values that Grimes seems to be running on. Many of these Democrats are culturally conservative. They cling to God and guns...and coal. Kentucky women don't seem all that interested in culture war issues like birth control and abortion. I took a closer look at the crosstabs on one of the latest polls (question number 12). It shows the top issues for Kentucky women is "Economy and Jobs." Interestingly, identical percentages of men and women (54 percent of both) ranked this as most important. There's not much difference between how men and women in Kentucky rank the importance of any of the issues, actually. But it is worth noting that just 3 percent of men and women think social issues are the most important. Attacking McConnell on gender issues in conservative Kentucky was always unlikely to be a game-changer.

To move the numbers, Grimes has had to embrace coal and shoot guns. But she's also had to run a series of negative TV ads that have been criticized by independent observers as "phony as a three-dollar bill," "misleading," simply false, making suggestions that are "not the case," and worthy of "4 Pinocchios." It hasn't worked yet — and it probably won't.

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