In the wake of incumbent Mitch McConnell’s victory over Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democrats are already starting to recalculate how to connect with women. Although all the signs were pointing to a McConnell victory in the weeks leading up to the election (the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee even pulled its TV spots from the air for a week in October), the result was a far cry from what Democrats were hoping for as late as the end of summer.
“Mitch McConnell has never run against a popularly elected statewide female who got more votes than the governor in 2011,” Grimes stated confidently in an interview with the New York Times in February, underscoring the high expectations and excitement that surrounded the possibility of the state’s first female senator. But despite Grimes’s energy and progressive views on women’s issues, her campaign failed to sway women to the Democratic side and capitalize on what initially seemed to be one of the Democrats’ best chances to knock off a GOP stalwart.
That a young Democrat failed to beat an established Republican is not as much of a surprise as the fact that Grimes, towards the end of the campaign, had virtually no advantage over McConnell among women. In a Bluegrass poll from mid-October, 44% of women said they would vote for McConnell, compared to only 43% for Grimes.
Democrats have effectively used the “war on women” slogan against Republicans over the past few years, but Grimes’s loss seems to be an indicator that the edge among women that Democrats have enjoyed is wearing off. Starting in 2010 and intensifying during the presidential campaign of 2012, Democrats have zeroed in on conservative voters’ support for restrictions on abortion, and their supposed lack of support for issues such as pay equality. Grimes’s campaign tried to direct the outrage of progressives and feminists towards her opponent by repeatedly citing McConnell’s inconsistent voting record on bills like the Violence Against Women Act (claims Politifact rated as only half-true) and highlighting audio in which McConnell calls equal pay for women “preferential treatment” for one half of the population.
Grimes’s most memorable ads featured a Kentuckian, seated next to Grimes, posing a question to Senator McConnell about his record. “Why did you vote two times against the Violence Against Women Act,” an elderly woman asks in one, to which the only response is the sound of the breeze. “I can never get him to answer this one either,” Grimes says, after five seconds of silence.
The McConnell camp, however, condemned Grimes’ strategy and sought to set the record straight regarding McConnell’s record on women’s issues. The campaign effectively used Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife and former secretary of labor, in ads and on the stump. Spots created by the McConnell campaign aimed to reverse the perception of a “war on women” waged by Republicans and accused Grimes of not believing in the power of women to succeed without the help of Washington. By shifting the rhetoric of his campaign from social issues and gender equality to the economy and jobs, McConnell basically neutralized any inherent advantage that Grimes held as a result of her gender.
This may have been in part because Kentucky, a traditionally red state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice since 1980, was simply the wrong place for a female candidate to conduct a progressive campaign based in large part around social issues. As Matt K. Lewis at the Week pointed out, “many Kentucky Democratic voters do not share the national Democratic values that Grimes seems to be running on.” In explaining the disparity, he cites another Bluegrass poll from August, in which 54% of Kentucky women said the economy and jobs were their most important issues, while only 3% said the same for social issues. Kentucky’s party affiliation demographics have also changed drastically over the past six years, with 52% of Kentuckians identifying or leaning Democratic in 2008, compared to only 39% in 2014.
Much of the blame for Grimes’s loss may be easily cast on President Obama, whose approval ratings in Kentucky rank among the lowest in the nation. According to a Gallup poll conducted between January and June of 2014, only 29% of Kentuckians said they approved of the job the president was doing—fourteen points below the national average. McConnell’s overwhelmingly negative campaign, largely funded by outside groups, filled the airwaves with ads that drove home the connection between Grimes and the president.
Above all else, the fact that Grimes was unable to lock down the women’s vote should give Democratic strategists pause nationwide. The Kentucky race should teach Democrats that, while they can still motivate their base using social issues, campaigns that focus on the opponent’s social conservatism are prone to fall flat. Mitch McConnell did not provide any of the obviously incendiary statements that defined Tea Party candidates like Todd Akin in 2012, and Grimes was forced to stretch the truth to campaign on her opponent’s flaws.
A loss like Grimes’s should incite soul-searching in the Democratic camp about the way to court women and minority voters. Two years after Democratic strategists set their sights on turning traditionally conservative states like Texas and Georgia purple, the 2014 Senate elections, especially that of Kentucky, show that Democrats cannot rely on being the party for women. Looking ahead to 2016, when women like Hillary Clinton and perhaps Elizabeth Warren will be running for president, Grimes’s defeat is an ominous sign, showing that a Republican candidate with a savvy campaign can neutralize the advantages of even the most well-positioned Democratic women among female voters.