A year after President Obama rode to re-election accusing Republicans of a war on women, the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia offered the GOP two options for how to strike back.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie easily defeated a female state senator by staying away from hot-button social issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage, and by earning strong support among women for his leadership after Superstorm Sandy.
Further south, however, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II struggled with female voters as he fought to overcome a socially conservative record that Vice President Joseph R. Biden, campaigning for Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, summed up as “from another era.” One ad running this past week in the Northern Virginia market accused Mr. Cuccinelli of wanting to outlaw contraception, one of a series of attack ads that helped Mr. McAuliffe edge out Mr. Cuccinelli at the ballot box.
“One of the key planks in the Democrats’ ‘win at all costs’ playbook is the ‘war on women’ maneuver,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “While both Cuccinelli and Christie are pro-life, only Cuccinelli fell headlong into this hyper-emotional trap. Christie’s strong favorability with female voters is a testament to his understanding the importance of tone, rhetoric, outreach and personal favorability when conveying one’s views. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, is a textbook example of how not to handle the [Democrats’] propaganda slime.”
Exit polls in Virginia, meanwhile, showed that Mr. Cuccinelli may have benefited from the blowback against Obamacare, with 48 percent of voters saying they support it and 50 percent saying they oppose it.
Heading into Tuesday, polls showed just how different the two races were. A Quinnipiac University Poll of New Jersey voters found Mr. Christie winning support of 57 percent of women over state Sen. Barbara Buono. In Virginia, Mr. Cuccinelli was supported by 36 percent of women.
Part of the reason for the difference was opportunity.
Democrats never saw the New Jersey race as particularly winnable, so the national party didn’t make much of an effort on Ms. Buono’s behalf.
Virginia presented another story. Governors are limited to one term, so Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, couldn’t run again, leaving no incumbent. Mr. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, proved to be an outstanding fundraiser, allowing him to flood the state with ads attacking Mr. Cuccinelli’s views on social issues.
“Cuccinelli has been buried in an avalanche of negative cash,” Republican strategist Mike McKenna said. “I think when all is said and done he will have been outspent around 2-to-1. Much of that cash has been directed at women, some of whom have gotten four or five mailings and phone calls each day.”
Four years ago, Mr. McDonnell, a social conservative and former attorney general who made his mark championing pro-life legislation during his time in the state legislature, played down social issues and focused on jobs and the economy during a deep economic slump.
Mr. Cuccinelli wasn’t able to achieve the same recalibration.
“Cuccinelli came to the party nomination as a hero to an ideological fringe and he was never able to reposition himself as a benign conservative the way that McDonnell did four years ago,” said Mark Rozell, acting dean and professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Republicans emerged from 2012 election losses nationwide pointing to failures to connect with female, minority and young voters.
Presidential nominee Mitt Romney regularly had to fend off attacks that he was anti-woman, but struggled to take positions on legislation such as the Fair Pay Act. At one point, Mr. Romney tried to rebut the charges by talking about the “binders full of women” he had when he was Massachusetts governor and was trying to staff his administration. The remark was widely lampooned.
President Obama went on to win the female vote 55 percent to 44 percent, according to exit polling.
The Republican National Committee warned in its postelection analysis — called the Growth and Opportunity Project — that when it comes to social issues that the party must “in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming.”
“If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues,” the report said, adding that Republicans should do a better job of countering Democrats’ attempts to portray them as anti-women.
“In 2012, the Republican response to this attack was muddled, and too often the attack went undefended altogether. We need to actively combat this, better prepare our surrogates, and not stand idly by while the Democrats pigeonhole us using false attacks,” it said.
In New Jersey, Mr. Christie left Democrats little opening to make those attacks — particularly after he helped steer his state through Superstorm Sandy last year, then helped secure tens of billions of dollars in federal assistance.
Polling showed his leadership on that issue helped him with voters across the board, including the three categories — women, minorities and young voters — that Republicans want to reach.
In Virginia, though, Democrats went full-throttle on the attacks.
On Monday, Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Biden called Mr. Cuccinelli a social crusader bent on curbing women’s access to health care and to abortion. Mr. Biden said Mr. Cuccinelli’s views on women are in line with those of the tea party movement and “literally from another era.”
“Everything they talk about, without exaggeration, is about turning back what the rest of the country and the world thinks is progress,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s hard to fathom this state being led by a man who rejects all that this new thinking stands for. The whole nation is looking at this race. That’s not hyperbole.”
“Women are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this guy is anti-choice, anti-marriage equality, anti-Planned Parenthood and anti-pay equity,’” she said. “He is aligned with the tea party in terms of social values.”
William J. Palatucci, a longtime Christie confidante and member of the Republican National Committee, said the charge against Mr. Christie did not stick because “women voters in New Jersey simply find the governor genuine and sincerely committed to tackling big issues.”
“He’s connected with all voters, especially women, as a person who truly cares about the problems confronting their families,” Mr. Palatucci said. “They trust him to do the right thing.”
Early exit polls showed that Mr. Christie won 56 percent of the female vote, 45 percent of the Hispanic vote and 21 percent of the black vote — all huge improvements over recent Republican presidential contenders.
Nevertheless, the poll said, he lost in a hypothetical matchup against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a powerhouse with women and the consensus front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Cuccinelli suffered from sponsoring some “goofy bills” while in the state legislature.
“They are both pro-life. It is a question of how you present it,” Mr. Davis said about Mr. Cuccinelli and Mr. Christie. “You don’t have to be pro-choice to win statewide in New Jersey and Virginia, but you have to handle the issue appropriately. When you get into birth control and other issues like that, it gets more problematic. Christie didn’t do that.”