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While we don’t yet know who is going to win on November 4, here is what we do know:

Women have already won in this election. Women’s health has played a critical role in the pivotal Senate and gubernatorial campaigns in 2014 – and in virtually every key race, candidates from both parties are fighting to show that they support women’s access to health care like birth control. Indeed, no major candidates in swing races ran on platforms to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care. The reason is obvious: It has become incredibly difficult to win elections in the U.S. if a candidate is perceived as opposing women’s access to reproductive health care – and it will only be more challenging in 2016.

In states where anti-abortion candidates are exceeding expectations with women voters, it is because they are running as avowedly pro-women’s health candidates, in some cases labeling themselves as “pro-choice,” attempting to align themselves with policies that expand women’s access to health care, and even implying they have the endorsement of Planned Parenthood.  This is not a year in which running anti-abortion campaigns is even being attempted. Rather, we are seeing abortion opponents run campaigns that blur the contrasts that they had sharpened in previous years.

What the polling tells us: Look for the gender gap

The gender gap is a reliable indicator of where to look for winning campaigns. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan’s re-election could have been over before it began. It was a state Romney carried in 2012, and the smaller electorate expected to vote in the mid-terms was in a sour, surly mood.

Hagan is leading, we would argue, because she put women’s health front and center in her campaign alongside education. Her campaign’s closing message on television in the final weeks is a series of ads called “Tell Thom Tillis” in which women literally lined up to take turns watching Thom Tillis ads and telling him what he’d done to hurt women’s health.

The result is there for anyone to see. The most recent findings from Public Policy Polling shows her with a fairly typical 47%-44% lead. Among women voters, however, she is ahead 49% to 37%.

  • WI: 10%. We’re seeing a similar gender gap emerge in the Wisconsin governor’s race where Scott Walker was originally thought to have a smooth path to reelection. Now he’s in a toss-up election against Mary Burke, who leads by 10% among women in the most recent New York Times/CBS News/YouGov poll.

  • GA: 34%. No one except for perhaps Sam Nunn thought that Michelle Nunn would be taking the Georgia senate race to the wire, and at this writing she’s enjoying a slight lead, thanks largely to her 34% lead among unmarried women according to pollster Stan Greenberg.

  • IA: 16%. Bruce Braley is locked in a close race with Joni Ernst because, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll, he’s leading with women by 16%.

  • NH: 10%. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is holding her lead against former Sen. Scott Brown, thanks largely to her 10% lead among women.

We are seeing plenty of places where campaigns are running on women’s health issues to keep them in the game. Champions of women’s health have run ads about abortion and birth control in Senate and gubernatorial races too numerous to count. We’re even seeing ads on women’s health from environmental groups and labor unions. Women’s health is keeping candidates in the game despite well-documented structural disadvantages inherent in the 2014 mid-terms. 

But doesn’t Colorado show that women’s health isn’t effective?

In a word, no. In fact, it shows the opposite. Women’s health is such an effective political issue that both candidates have tried to claim this mantle (even after one of those candidates, Cory Gardner, ran just four years ago with an anti-women’s health platform).

Gardner has spent much of his campaign running away from his record on women’s health, including flat-out lying about his co-sponsorship of the federal personhood bill which would ban abortion. “For You,” in which he proposed selling birth control over-the-counter (at the same time he proposes repealing the ACA and its birth control benefit), was arguably the most telling ad of the cycle, revealing how far he would go to avoid acknowledging, much less running on, his record. In interviews, Gardner has not only disavowed his past support for so-called personhood initiatives but steadfastly denied the existence of a federal personhood bill he is co-sponsoring, indicating that he knows how much being on the wrong side of this issue will hurt him. The result is that Gardner is only losing the women’s vote by 4% in the most recent numbers from Public Policy Polling.

Meanwhile, Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), who voted to defund Planned Parenthood health centers in Congress along with Cory Gardner, used our logo in one of his campaign ads to falsely imply that Planned Parenthood Action Fund had endorsed him.

Other candidates, with similarly dismal women’s health records, have touted over-the-counter birth control and run ads in which they touted their stances against domestic violence and for women in general.

  • In Iowa, Joni Ernst tried to disavow a state personhood bill that she voted for, saying it was merely “a statement of principle.” Later, she said she would support the federal bill - on the very same day Gardner continued to argue it didn’t exist.

  • In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who as governor signed four medically unnecessary restrictions on safe and legal abortion in two years, ran a direct-to-camera ad claiming those laws are to protect the “health and safety of all Wisconsin citizens,” and that decisions about abortion should be between a woman and her doctor.  It’s a far cry from 2010 candidate Scott Walker, who proudly confirmed he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.  

  • In New Hampshire, Scott Brown ran a similar ad where he claims that he is “pro-choice” and supports access to contraception. Ironically, Scott Brown hid in a bathroom to avoid answering questions about his support for the deeply unpopular Hobby Lobby decision that let bosses deny their employees access to affordable birth control.

  • And in Florida, Rick Scott has attacked Charlie Crist not because he supports abortion rights but because he used to hold the opposite position. The attack is based on the assumption that supporting women’s access to abortion is a winning position.

But none have invested as much in women’s health claims as Gardner has. This doesn’t prove that women’s health isn’t a potent issue. It’s clear that Cory Gardner and his advisors knew that it was one of his biggest liabilities, so he tried to reverse his position completely.   

As I wrote in a recent Huffington Post op-ed, “it requires only a passing acquaintance with facts to know that women face real threats to access to abortion and affordable birth control.”  After facing a series of laws in several states and many votes in congress to defund Planned Parenthood, you could excuse us for our skepticism of anti-women’s health candidates who have a sudden change of heart on these issues just days before an election.  And if they’re elected, we’ll be there to hold them accountable to the promises they made to women on the campaign trail.  With the 2016 presidential race nearly upon us, and the GOP primary already shaping up to be a race to the bottom on women’s health, it is increasingly clear that access to safe and legal abortion, affordable birth control, and women’s access to basic health care will play a decisive role when voters go to the polls in 2016. 


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