Democrats decry Republican Party as sexist, out of touch and ‘extreme’

Democrats are seizing on a GOP press release that said Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be “put in her place” to paint Republicans as out of touch with women.

The offensive comes as Republican candidates for governor in Virginia and New Jersey have come under attack for their views on women. Both GOP candidates have seen their leads narrow in races seen by both parties as bellwethers.

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Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on Wednesday stopped short of calling Republicans sexist, but depicted the GOP as holding “extreme” and “outdated” views.

The two held a teleconference with reporters on a press release issued by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) on Tuesday that said Pelosi (D-Calif.) should be “put in her place” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of troops in Afghanistan.

But most of the call focused on criticism of the two GOP gubernatorial candidates, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was also criticized for a remark he made during a committee markup of a healthcare bill.

NRCC communications director Ken Spain said Democrats were mischaracterizing the release about Pelosi and trying to shift the argument from Afghanistan.  Asked if the NRCC regretted its choice of words, Spain said the committee stands by its release.

“This is about [how] the Speaker of the House is taking on a highly decorated general who has outlined a strategy in Afghanistan that she once claimed to advocate,” Spain said.

The attacks marked a concerted effort by Democrats to sway female voters beyond this fall’s campaigns and into next year’s midterm congressional elections, where the party could face a difficult landscape.

In both New Jersey and Virginia, campaigns have aggressively courted women’s votes out of a sense that they could determine the outcome. McDonnell in particular has seen his approval among women drop in the wake of reports about a graduate thesis he wrote that described working women and feminists as “detrimental” to society.

“Republicans have a problem here,” said Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “And as they continue to possess these attitudes and continue to push these policies detrimental to women, we’re going to call them out.”

The NRCC release criticized Pelosi for calling for action in Afghanistan while George W. Bush was president but walking back the strategy now that Democrats hold the White House.

“If Nancy Pelosi’s failed economic policies are any indicator of the effect she may have on Afghanistan, taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put her in her place,” the NRCC release concluded.

Wasserman Schultz told reporters that the release was demeaning and demonstrative of GOP attitudes toward women. She said it was “understandable” the GOP wouldn’t understand women, because few of its elected representatives in Washington are female.

Spain countered that Democrats are attacking the GOP on gender because they are worried about the 2010 vote. He noted a Gallup poll released Wednesday that showed voter preference on the parties nearly equal on a generic ballot.

“It is clearly a losing strategy, and a decision made out of political desperation,” Spain said Wednesday afternoon. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise for them to mischaracterize such statements.”

Democrats “wish” that Republicans were out of touch with women, but it just isn’t true, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told The Hill.

“It’s a great little fantasy story. It just doesn’t stand the smile-and-laughter test,” she said. If it were true, she said, Republicans wouldn’t win at the ballot box, because of the power of female voters.

But Democrats indicated Wednesday that they believe attacking the GOP’s views on women could be a winning strategy.

Wasserman Schultz called Christie “incredibly patronizing” toward women for suggesting that state support for pre-kindergarten education amounts to little more than state “babysitting.”

Virginia state Del. Margaret Vanderhye, who also spoke on the call, criticized McDonnell’s 1989 thesis at Regent University, saying it maps out a “blueprint” for how the Republican would govern the state.

President Barack Obama’s political arm, Organizing for America, also got in the game on Wednesday, with OFA Director Mitch Stewart characterizing McDonnell as having a “backward-looking social agenda.”

Stabenow condemned remarks by Kyl, who during last week’s Senate Finance Committee markup questioned the need for all health insurance policies to cover maternity care.

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“One of the most shocking things to me on the Senate Finance Committee markup was the extent to which my Republican colleagues weren’t even aware of what they were saying and why it was so offensive to women,” she said. “When I hear these comments, there’s just a total lack of understanding.”

Arizona Democrats held a rally at Kyl’s office in that state on Wednesday to highlight the minority whip’s remarks.

Stabenow also pointed to 30 Senate Republicans who voted Tuesday against an amendment from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to bar funds to the Halliburton Co. if it prohibits employees from suing for rape or sexual harassment. All the senators who voted against the Franken amendment were men.

“You put it all together, and it’s extreme and it’s backwards,” Stabenow said of Republicans.

Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.