On November 2, California bucked a national trend and elected pro-choice, pro-women leaders. The results from California should teach candidates around the nation an important lesson: if you want women to vote for you, you must be willing to speak honestly and directly about the issues that women care about. Contrary to what Carly Fiorina claimed during her campaign, reproductive health still matters.
Much has been made of the fact that in nationwide exit polling, Democrats lost the women’s vote by just one percent. However, these nationwide numbers do not tell the whole story –there were several key statewide races in which the Democratic candidate highlighted their pro-choice credentials and won. In these races the gender gap was significantly larger, with women voters supporting the pro-choice candidates by double-digit margins. Among the candidates to tout their pro-choice credentials and win were Sen. Boxer (CA) who won the women’s vote by 16 points, Sen. Murray (WA) who won women by 12 points, and Sen. Bennet (CO) who won women by 17 points.
In a number of statewide races in which women delivered a significant margin, candidates and independent organizations made choice part of the winning argument, inserting it into debates, focusing on it in paid TV ads, and hammering it home in mail and phone calls targeted at women voters. That was certainly the case here in California, where Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California educated women voters about the positions of the Senate and Gubernatorial candidates. Through mail, phone calls and radio ads, we set out to ensure that women were making informed decisions when they cast their ballots — based on our belief that a candidate’s position on access to reproductive health care matters. The results were astounding. Every night our volunteers had conversations with women voters who were disengaged and undecided — and largely unaware of where the candidates stood on choice. Over brief conversations, minds changed quickly. Women up and down the state told us that they could never support a candidate who opposed legal access to abortion services. In the governor’s race — where Meg Whitman could only awkwardly explain her position on choice — women voters were swayed by Brown’s long-standing commitment to affordable preventive care, including cancer screenings and contraception, and teen pregnancy prevention.
Women are the primary health care decision makers in most homes — and the majority of care that women seek is reproductive. Put simply, candidates can’t pretend that they’re engaging women voters without discussing health care — and they can’t pretend that they’re discussing health care without addressing reproductive health. No one would claim that this is easy to do — certainly no one at Planned Parenthood. It requires nuance, a willingness to dive into the details and, most importantly, acknowledgment that political decisions directly impact real women’s lives. It shouldn’t be a philosophical debate or political shorthand — women deserve an honest conversation about access, affordability and quality that too few candidates are willing to have.
The mid-term elections are over, but it’s not too late. In the best case scenario, the federal health care reforms passed earlier this year create an opportunity to have a national conversation that adequately addresses the importance of women and our health. In the worst case scenario, we’ll see renewed attacks against basic access to birth control and other women’s preventive health services. More than ever we’ll need women’s voices to sustain the victories that we’ve had in the Obama administration’s first two years. As advocates, it is our job to create the space for and elevate this dialogue. It’s never too late to begin.