‘War on women’ narrative needs an update, Colo. group says

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Photo: Vote hereWomen are anticipated to be one of the most important constituencies in this fall’s elections, particularly independent voters in places like Jefferson County. The stakes are high: Colorado’s U.S. Senate race between Mark Udall and challenger Cory Gardner, an Eastern Plains congressman, could help determine which party controls that chamber.

Politicians are looking for the best way to reach female voters and Udall has employed a strategy on television ads that a lot of his fellow Democrats have used in recent years: criticizing Gardner, a Republican, for attempts to restrict access to birth control and legal abortions.

In the past few years, some Democrats have gone as far as saying Republicans are waging a "war on women," a phrase that's come to represent the strategy of hammering Republicans for their stances on women's health issues.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Colorado is “ground zero” for that kind of rhetoric this year, but one group, the Colorado Women’s Alliance, is looking to turn the narrative on its head.

"My concern was there was one sort of 'women's agenda' put out there in the public that seemed to need to be for all women, and I felt like my voice wasn't being heard and the voice of other women I knew," says Debbie Brown, who founded the advocacy group in 2011.

The main message she aims to send is that women care about other issues -- like the economy, energy, health care and education -- just as much as access to birth control and abortion.

"I haven't found a woman yet who has said finding birth control is her number one political issue," Brown says.

She formed the group after what she describes as a troubling result in the 2010 race between Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Ken Buck, a Republican, who were facing off over Colorado's other U.S. Senate seat.

In that race, Bennet, the Democrat, ran advertisements criticizing efforts by Buck, the Republican, to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest. The strategy was a winning one: According to some reports, even Republicans blamed Buck's loss on Bennet's tactic to target female voters with messages around reproductive health.

Brown says that in polling and focus groups she's found other issues, such as the jobs and money, are more important to women voters, and so she and the Colorado Women's Alliance are recruiting women to speak up through interviews and editorials in order to influence other women deciding how to vote. Brown says the Colorado Women's Alliance isn't associated with one political party, but it supports candidates on the center-right. While that viewpoint most often belongs to Republicans, Brown says it can also come from Libertarians and moderate Democrats.

Democrats, through their own polling and research, seem to be coming to similar conclusions about how to reach women voters. Several recent reports say Democrats are increasingly talking to women about economic issues, widening their strategy to sway those voters.

Brown notes that even on reproductive health issues, Democrats are starting to find their old messaging isn't working. She points to a recent New York Times story that finds liberal groups are using the "pro-choice" label less than they used to because, in the words of one Planned Parenthood staffer it quotes, the label is "outdated," and younger women tend not to be single-issue voters.