ATLANTA – Deciding which party controls the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama's tenure could come down to women — both the handful who are running in significant races and the moderate female voters who often make the difference in close elections.
With Republicans needing a net gain of six seats to claim the Senate majority, Democrats want to replicate the kind of advantage among female voters — the so-called "gender gap"— they usually post in presidential election years. To do it, they're angling for advantage in midterm election states with competitive races on issues they believe will make a difference: Pocketbook policy on minimum wage and pay equity, education, health care and insurance coverage for contraception.
"There's no secret that over the last couple of cycles, women have been a disproportionate part of the targeted persuadable voters," said Democratic pollster and strategist John Anzalone, a top campaign adviser to North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan. The larger the gender gap for Democrats, he added, "the more likely they are to win."
Republicans, meanwhile, bristle at the implication that the GOP agenda hurts women. In the 2012 elections, President Barack Obama cruised to re-election, and his party kept control of the Senate in part with their battle cry that on those issues and more, the GOP was waging a "war on women."
Those in the GOP say the November results will be more about the economy and the country's overall direction, with voter discontent toward Obama, his job performance and — critically, his signature health care overhaul — trumping whatever issues Democrats try to emphasize.
Of course, maximizing the gender gap could be tricky for Democrats in a midterm election year when an older, whiter electorate makes it even harder for Democrats to motivate their core supporters and win over independents, who are more conservative.
"In states where Democrats don't win that often, this is not the year they're going to reverse the trend," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who works for North Carolina GOP Senate front-runner Thom Tillis. "It's hard to overcome the fundamentals with tactics, no matter how good a campaign you run."
Anzalone conceded as much, but said the Democratic strategy isn't about winning on single, hot-button issues "isolated to women." Instead, it's about a range of issues that combine to "help take Republicans off their narrative."
It's not just Democrats wooing women. Even in races where both candidates are men, the competitors are acutely aware of the need to appeal to female voters, or at least not alienate too many. In Colorado, for example, Democrats backing incumbent Sen. Mark Udall have attacked Republican Rep. Cory Gardner for his previous support of a so-called "personhood" amendment, a provision that recognizes legal rights for fetuses from conception. Gardner has since backed off, a signal of how sensitive the issue could be in the perennially competitive state, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press.
And in Georgia, the only woman in the seven-candidate Republican nomination fight is suggesting that being female could nullify any "war on women" talk from Democrats if, as expected, they nominate Michelle Nunn to run for an open Senate seat.
"I would really love to see Michelle Nunn drop the 'war on women' on me," former secretary of state Karen Handel said to big applause at a luncheon this month, where 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed her.
Recent political history make women voters a hotly pursued demographic in 2014.
According to exit polls, the gender gap in recent elections in Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia has typically been in the double digits, with women far more apt to back Democratic candidates than men.
In Louisiana and North Carolina, Democratic Senate incumbents Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan, both making re-election bids in 2014, won six years ago with strong performances among women. Landrieu even outperformed Obama in 2008, winning 57 percent of women while Obama captured just 42 percent of women voters in Louisiana that year. Hagan's 55 percent matched Obama's support among women. Both fared worse among men, with Hagan garnering just 47 percent of their votes.
Two years later, across three vastly different Senate contests in 2010 — Colorado (a toss-up), Kentucky (where the GOP candidate had an advantage) and West Virginia (where the Democrat had an advantage) — the gender gap persisted. Women backed the Democrat by double-digits in both West Virginia and Colorado and split evenly in a Kentucky election that saw Republican Rand Paul carry a 21-point advantage among men.
The election math means courting women voters is an anchor of the party's strategy for protecting incumbents like Hagan, Landrieu and Udall. The strategy also is central to Democratic efforts to winning Republican-held seats in Kentucky, where Alison Lundergan Grimes wants to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell, and in Georgia, where Nunn wants to succeed retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.
Grimes hammers McConnell, saying his record as Republican floor leader in the Senate "couldn't be more black and white" against women for his votes, among others, against minimum wage hikes and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that makes it easier for women to sue for gender-based wage discrimination. And she emphasizes her support for expanding child care tax credits and programs for domestic violence victims.
Hagan has criticized the North Carolina legislature — which Tillis helps lead as House speaker — for a rightward lurch she says hurts women.
Nunn eagerly notes that she'd be Georgia's first woman elected to the Senate. "I meet women all the time who are aware that we have a chance to make history," she said. And, as she also awaits GOP primary results, she accuses all of her potential rivals of "running to the extremes."
Republicans, meanwhile, mock Democrats for the strategy.
McConnell campaign aides dismiss Grimes as a hypocrite for being slow to speak out against another prominent Kentucky Democrat — a state House member — accused of sexual harassment by two legislative staff members. More broadly, Republicans say Democrats cannot run from their associations with Obama. That variable bolsters GOP confidence since so many of the contested Senate races are in states Obama lost in 2012.
Republicans have gone on offense with female nominees vying for two open seats now held by Democrats.
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is the favorite over Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in the race to succeed Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring.
In Michigan, Republican Rep. Terry Lynn Land squares off against her Democratic House colleague Gary Peters for retiring Sen. Carl Levin's seat. Republican primaries in Georgia and Iowa also could yield female nominees.
In a recent ad, Land says: "Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe I'm waging a war on women. ... Think about that for a moment." She adds sarcastically, "I approved this message because, as a woman, I might know a little more about women than Gary Peters."
Associated Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, D.C., and AP writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.