Governor McCrory’s decision to sign SB 353 dealing with new regulations of abortion clinics in North Carolina generated a great deal of controversy as pro-life and pro-choice advocates battled over the meaning of the legislation. Pro-choice women’s groups argued that this action would galvanize women into being an even more potent force for Democratic candidates in 2014, while pro-life women argued that the majority of North Carolinians supported the bill.
There is little doubt that the 2014 elections in North Carolina will be very important for Democrats and Republicans. Democrats want to win back state legislative seats lost in 2010 and 2012 to reverse the legislative victories in the last session. Republicans want to maintain their advantage in the state house and also knock off the US Senate seat currently held by Democrat Kay Hagan.
There is also little doubt that women are increasingly important in North Carolina elections. Women typically vote at a higher rate than men in the state, casting almost a half million more votes than their male counterparts in 2012. However, in the last midterm election in 2010 men outperformed women. Although 2010 may be understood as an outlier election because of the influence of the Tea Party, men also outperformed women in the 2012 state primary election, where the constitutional issue of same sex marriage was on the ballot. This demonstrates that on emotional “hot button” issues, like same sex marriage, the gender gap that is often discussed as trending even more in the favor of women, cannot always be counted on.
On the subject of SB 353, North Carolinians are opposed to the bill, although not a majority of likely voters. Recent Public Policy Polling data demonstrates that 47% oppose the bill, white 34% favor it. A slim majority of women–51%–are opposed to the bill. Other recent polls, however, , like the Elon University Poll in April show that more North Carolinians favor laws making access to abortions more difficulty, although by a slim margin (42.4%-37.1%). The Elon University poll results are more consistent with past polls that show that North Carolina continues to have a strong socially conservative base.
Obviously many women are angry at the General Assembly for the abortion vote and many other issues, such as education. In the PPP polls, 60% of women voters favored Democrats on the generic ballot question and a large majority of women were displeased with the legislature’s lack of transparency.
Women can be a force in the 2014 elections, but it would be wise for the Democrats to avoid making the races about abortion or other social issues. There may be a great deal of anger among many women about how SB 353 was passed and about other social issues, but as history tells us, Republicans are well situated to contest elections on “red meat” social issues. Democrats would be wise to make the reelection of Kay Hagan and the election of other Democratic candidates to state offices more about economic justice, education, and health than about abortion.
McClatchy’s Washington correspondent David Lightman, in writing about the rash of disgraced former elected officials, like former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, getting or seeking reelection (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/11/196452/wheres-the-shame-scandals-may.html#.UeQuBxZG6FI) argues that public disgrace will no longer sideline politicians. The recent victory of Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s first congressional district race and recent polls that suggest that Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are the frontrunners in their respective races for NY comptroller and mayor, are evidence for his claims.
Although Lightman may be correct in asserting that political comebacks are possible for some politicians in very favorable electoral districts, there is a great double standard that operates in this country. Put simply, women exhibiting the same judgment errors as men would have absolutely no chance of making a political comeback. A woman governor leaving office after the disgrace of hiring prostitutes, like Spitzer, or tweeting out pornographic photos of herself, like Weiner would be politically radioactive. Not only would they have no chance for reentering public life, but those around them would be exiled from the public’s forgiveness.
Despite the fact that women have made progress in American politics over recent decades, the American public continues to have very traditional attitudes about women in politics. Issues such as personal appearance, emotional responses to situations, and even marital status continue to be judged differently for women in politics than for men. If Hillary Clinton pursues the presidency in 2016, expect media coverage and public discussion to focus on her suits and hairstyle, her tears or lack thereof, and what degree her husband appears with her and what implications those have for the state of their marriage.
Until the public moves beyond the idea in politics that “boys will be boys” and that women must reach sometimes unattainable standards of behavior, the mere thought of a women making a comeback from a sexual or other type of scandal is impossible.