Republican Senate candidates are staying silent on President Obama's latest changes to the birth control coverage mandate, even as the policy catches flak from the religious right.
Top GOP hopefuls haven’t weighed in on the issue since Friday, when the administration announced new measures meant to accommodate religious groups and businesses owners who object to their insurance covering birth control.
The lack of response reveals would-be GOP senators' extreme caution as they approach the birth control debate at this point in the election cycle.
While lawmakers in safe seats freely expressed their disappointment alongside outside groups, GOP candidates involved in tough races have, so far, declined to join the debate.
Republican consultants said candidates would be foolish to risk comments that could alienate female voters at this stage of the campaign with Democrats so ready to pounce on the “war on women” message.
"There is no need to draw attention to an issue that is so down in the weeds, so deep in the minutiae, that could spoil an entire Senate campaign," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell.
"Republicans recognize ... that they shouldn't be discussing birth control right now, unless they can be on offense," O'Connell said.
The administration's policy changes mean that religious nonprofits can alert the government rather than their insurance company if they don't want to offer birth control coverage to their workers.
The seemingly inconsequential change — the mandate's eighth revision, according to critics — attempts to address concerns that, by alerting the insurance company, religious objectors are essentially triggering the coverage themselves.
The Catholic Church argued Friday that the additional step is no compromise from the standpoint of religious groups because it still involves them in a process that results in birth control coverage.
"The regulations would only modify the 'accommodation,' under which the mandate still applies and still requires provision of the objectionable coverage," said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement.
The rules have also been criticized for keeping the mandate's distinction between churches, which are exempt, and other religious employers.
"The administration has set itself up as the grand inquisitor, determining who is religious enough to merit the government's benevolence and who is not," stated an analysis from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"What we see here is another revised attempt to settle issues of religious conscience with accounting maneuvers," the group’s president, Russell D. Moore, said in a separate statement.
The Alliance for Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council and a handful of conservative lawmakers agreed.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is handling legal challenges on behalf of several groups, also failed to embrace the changes.
These views are now lighting up the evangelical and Catholic media, not to mention the conservative blogosphere.
While critics have not yet pointed a finger at top Republican candidates for their silence, the campaign strategy could become an issue as birth control remains in headlines.
At the same time, strategists said, Republicans are aware that comments about birth control could hand Democrats ammunition in a close cycle that could come down to unmarried women voters.
While a handful of would-be senators, such as Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerGardner's chief of staff tapped for Senate GOP campaign director McConnell reelected Senate majority leader Pro-pot advocates score huge victories MORE (R-Colo.). have talked up policies like over-the-counter birth control, most are loathe to engage too deeply in the debate.
GOP candidates "recognize the trap," said O'Connell. "Democrats are looking for any opportunity to mobilize women, and they know how to make one candidate's comment play in every race."
The wider conundrum for Republicans comes as Democrats and allies like Planned Parenthood work to make 2014 a referendum on women's health issues.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attacked the GOP field for opposing the birth control mandate and supporting the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling.
"What Republican candidates haven’t been silent on is their unabashed support for laws that block women’s access to common forms of birth control and allow employers to decide whether or not birth control should be covered as part of their health insurance," said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Friday's proposal would allow businesses covered by the Hobby Lobby ruling to use the same method as religious groups to avoid offering or paying for birth control coverage.
Some groups on the left responded with outrage, saying the administration has gone too far in trying to appease religious critics.
"For-profit corporations do not have consciences or religious liberty rights," Catholics for Choice President Jon O'Brien said Monday in a statement.
"Their employees do, and the administration should not be creating rules to enable discrimination against workers at the behest of religious extremists."