On back-to-back days this weekend, I found myself covering a woman candidate who was furiously peddling herself — to women voters.
Kay Hagan, the incumbent North Carolina Democrat who is perilously close to losing her Senate seat to a man, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, spent one afternoon locking arms with Hillary Clinton, and the next bonding with Cecile Richards, the CEO of Planned Parenthood.
“Reach out particularly to every single woman you know,” Clinton exhorted a cheering crowd in downtown Charlotte. “Because women’s rights are like the canary in the mine.”
When I sat down with Hagan the next day, she did not hesitate to make the same basic point.
“I think women in North Carolina have seen the failed policies put forward by Thom Tillis,” she said. “Whether it’s the future of the public education system, or whether it’s the fact that he supports allowing an employer to deny coverage of birth control for a women — and it’s 2014 — women in North Carolina know that we can do better than that.”
Democrats are making the same case, nearly word for word, in closely fought races all over the country. And former Secretary of State Clinton, who is barnstorming through the country in all the places President Obama can’t or won’t go — is embracing gender pitches in ways she never did in her 2008 presidential campaign.
A standard feature of her stump speech has been to call on women voters to support candidates who don’t treat being female as “a pre-existing condition.”
But party still trumps gender.
“It’s not enough to be a woman,” Clinton said while campaigning for Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley, who is running for the Senate against Republican Joni Ernst. “You have to be committed to expand rights and opportunities for all women.”
Also, because women (and men) vote on more than reproductive rights, this definition of feminism has now expanded to include economic policy and education.
“You talk to women, this is about economics, but it’s also about respect, and Colorado’s fiercely independent,” endangered Democratic Senator Mark Udall told me. “It’s also about respect … and we think government, above all, should not be involved in these private decisions.”
When I asked him a similar question, Udall’s GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner replied: “You want to talk about the real war on women, let’s talk about the failed economic policies of Barack Obama and Mark Udall.”
Indeed, the candidates on ballots from coast to coast have a lot more on their plates than gender.
If you’re Democrat Mary Burke in Wisconsin, and you’re trying to oust a controversial but durable Republican incumbent governor like Scott Walker, you’re talking about pensions and voter ID laws too.
If you’re a Republican like Iowa’s Ernst, you are pushing back against Hillary Clinton by pointing out that you too are a woman and a mom, but also a former soldier.
North Carolina’s Tillis has gone so far as to brand the gender pitch “a gimmick.”
“Government’s killing jobs here,” he said when we talked in Charlotte. “And they’re killing jobs disproportionately for women.”
The same debates await women like Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire — all Democrats in tight races — and men like Udall in Colorado and David Pryor in Arkansas.
Party affiliation matters because Democrats traditionally have held a healthy advantage over Republicans when it comes to women voters — especially the young and the single who are likely to be affected by debates over birth control and abortion.
But this year could be different. Not only is the gender gap closing in key states, but recent polls are showing Republican-leaning men may be more motivated to turn out this midterm year.
Normally when this many women are on the ballot, we immediately deem it “the year of the woman.” I’ve covered more of them than I can count.
But the label doesn’t seem to be sticking this year. Maybe we’re past it, or maybe it just doesn’t mean what it used to anymore.