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Republicans eye gains with female voters after Virginia rout
Republicans are looking to make further gains with female voters, particularly in the suburbs, in next year's midterm elections after a strong showing in Virginia suggested they had made inroads with the group.
Suburban women proved to be a major asset to Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 midterms, giving them control of the House, Senate and presidency.
But Republican Glenn Youngkin's inroads with female voters helped him, in part, to become the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Exit polling shows that white women in particular swung back to Republicans in the commonwealth last month.
Republicans say they hope to employ Youngkin's disciplined strategy of staying focused on kitchen table issues, such as the economy, crime and education in order to win over more female voters.
"When I talk to voters, they are concerned about inflation," House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said during a news conference last week for her own Elevate PAC, which works to elect GOP women to the House. "They're also concerned about their kids' education."
Youngkin's focus on those core issues paid dividends on Election Day, especially in the closely watched suburbs. According to ABC News, Youngkin carried the suburban vote 53 percent to 47 percent. President Biden won that same constituency in Virginia 53 percent to 45 percent in last year's presidential election.
The percentage of white women who voted Republican in Virginia increased from 49 percent in 2020 to 57 percent in 2021, according to exit polling from CBS News. Meanwhile, the percentage of white women who voted Democratic in Virginia decreased from 50 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in 2021. Much of that can be attributed to a shift specifically among white women without college degrees. The number of white women in Virginia without college degrees who voted Republican shot up from 56 percent in 2020 to 74 percent in 2021. The number of such women who voted Democratic dropped from 44 percent in 2020 to only 25 percent in 2021.
Youngkin put a particular emphasis on the economy, continuously talking about economic initiatives like doing away with the state's grocery tax, as the prices of goods and services rose across the country.
"They were concerned about grocery prices, about inflation, and from all indications that's not going to go away," said Amanda Iovino, who ran polling for Youngkin's campaign, referring to female suburban voters.
"Cost of living, personal finances, those were the messages that really helped drive our support with suburban women and also minority voters," she added.
Republican strategists argue that the issues of rising prices and the supply chain crisis will play particularly well with women in households.
"Women do the monthly budgets in their families," said Sarah Chamberlain, the president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.
"The woman is out grocery shopping, she's running the monthly expenses and 25 percent more for food, if you can even find the food, that's a lot of money on top of all of the extra money for gas," she continued.
Republican strategists also argue that candidates facing close and contested races should take a page out of Youngkin's playbook when it comes to appealing to female voters while former President Trump continues to endorse and insert himself into various races ahead of 2022.
"We focus on the policies of the Trump administration, not the man," Chamberlain said.
The 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential elections saw major gains for Democrats at the suburban level in what has been described as a repudiation of Trump. Democrat Terry McAuliffe relentlessly tried to paint Youngkin as a Trump acolyte, but the strategy did not stick, given that Youngkin didn't fully embrace the former president during the general election campaign.
McAuliffe also repeatedly worked to tie Youngkin to the Texas abortion law signed by that state's governor earlier this year, which bans the procedure after fetal cardiac activity is detected. The strategy was unsuccessful, having apparently failed to persuade independent and swing voters.
However, it's not known what role the abortion debate will play in female voters' electoral decisions next year, with potentially large changes to abortion rights anticipated in June when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
"It could be very influential in the election," Chamberlain said, regarding abortion. "We'll have to see what the Supreme Court does, but sitting here today, these suburban women want to vote Republican; they like our issues, and they're afraid of the socialist agenda."
Democrats, on the other hand, say the issue has the potential to mobilize female voters concerned about the future of reproductive rights and health. The party has also pushed back on GOP messaging when it comes to rising prices, arguing that Republicans who voted against Biden's American Rescue Package and Build Back Better Act were rejecting programs that will benefit the economy and lower prices.
"Republicans won't be able to run away from their party's terrible record of attacking women's health care access and opposing popular proposals that will lower costs and cut taxes for millions of American families - and in 2022, voters will hold every GOP Senate candidate accountable for their party's toxic agenda," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokeswoman Jazmin Vargas.
Internal polling from the DSCC's Republican counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), paints a different picture. An NRSC Suburban Battleground survey conducted in September found 47 percent of respondents said they believed Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda would "hurt the economy," while 44 percent said it was needed. The poll also found Republicans leading Democrats on the generic ballot 43 percent to 39 percent.
"What's clear from our polling is that suburban voters have buyer's remorse," NRSC Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote in a Fox News op-ed in October. "They're realizing that President Biden is not the moderate they thought he was - in fact, he's much more liberal than anyone could have imagined."
A poll from the Democratic firm Navigator Research found that 77 percent of Americans said they were in favor of the American Rescue Plan, while 3 in 5 Americans said they supported Biden's Build Back Better Plan. The survey also found that Americans said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans, 47 percent to 37 percent, to get "the rising costs of health care and prescription drugs under control."
However, the same poll showed Republicans leading Democrats 46 percent to 41 percent on who they trust more to get "the rising costs of everyday goods like groceries and gas under control."
Republicans maintain that Biden's agenda will ultimately have the strongest impact down ballot, and add that they expect that impact to be negative given the state of the economy.
"The person currently in office has much more of an effect on what's going on than the person who is out of office most recently," Iovino said.