Where are the women?
The question, posed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) to an all-male panel at Thursday's House Oversight Committee hearing on a new birth control coverage requirement, has rapidly turned into a political rallying cry, sparking a viral online campaign and lighting a fire under Democratic campaigns.
It has also put a coda of sorts on a culture war argument that erupted several weeks ago. A debate that began with the straightforward constitutional question of what the government could instruct religious institutions to do with respect to health care coverage has become the most galvanizing political issue for Democrats since the president introduced his jobs act last fall.
A series of incendiary events has thrust the issue of contraception to the forefront of the national discussion in the past few weeks. There was an outcry after Obama introduced the rule, which requires most religiously affiliated employers to cover birth control for their employees. Soon after, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation's largest breast cancer charity, cut off funds to Planned Parenthood, which provides affordable cancer screenings and contraception to millions of low-income women, because some of its locations also perform abortions. The ensuing controversy sparked a massive national discussion about the politicization of women's health and coaxed GOP politicians, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, into taking sides.
Just as the Komen controversy died down, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced an amendment that would have allowed insurers to opt out of covering any form of health care to which they morally objected. This, in itself, was low hanging fruit for the Democrats. But when House Republicans convened an all-male panel to discuss contraception, and when Foster Friess, a top financial backer of former Sen. Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, said that pregnancies could be prevented by "gals" putting Bayer Asprin "between their knees," campaign consultants had the type of political imagery that they could only dream of. For Democratic lawmakers, it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, giving them the chance to launch a well-oiled, comprehensive effort to lock in women's votes ahead of the 2012 elections.
EMILY's List, a political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic women to Congress, has launched a multi-pronged effort to rally voters around the birth control issue. The group has sent out multiple fundraising emails and created a new television ad, which features Friess' comment and the image from the all-male Congressional hearing, in order to emphasize the need for more progressive women in leadership roles. Although Jess McIntosh, communications director for EMILY's List, did not reveal the amount of money the group has raised in the past two weeks, she said it's clear that the latest drive for money and supporters has been a huge success.
"We added over 60,000 members in the last couple weeks," McIntosh told The Huffington Post Friday. "We had over 30,000 petition signers just yesterday for a petition about the birth control mandate, which is unusual. We have raised more money for candidates at this point in the cycle than ever before, and we've definite seen an uptick in also how active these folks are."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent a fundraising email and petition drive out to DSCC supporters urging them to oppose both the Blunt amendment and the "aspirin agenda." A petition about the "aspirin agenda" collected over 65,000 signatures in one day. A similar "Where are the women?" petition circulated by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has collected over 250,000 signatures since it went out late Thursday night.
State Democratic parties and individual campaigns have also been able to use the federal birth control controversy to drum up local support. The Virginia Democratic Party, for instance, claims to have raised an unusually high amount of money and saw a "spike in interaction" in the two days following Issa's birth control hearing.
"People kind of came to life about this issue. Across the board, we have seen a considerable uptick in the financial response our people have had to what's going on," said Brian Coy, a spokesperson for the Virginia Democrats. "We've raised thousands of dollars over the last 48 hours over this, which is absolutely not normal, and we've seen a huge uptick in Facebook and Twitter activity."
Maggie Hassan, a Democrat running for governor of New Hampshire, said her campaign has also seen a considerable increase in donations and support since birth control rose to the forefront of the national discussion.
"All the men talking about birth control really is, I think, generating this kind of disbelief, and it's really firing people up," she told HuffPost. "We're beginning to see a lot of discussion about it on our Facebook pages, I get asked about it at house parties, and it's definitely motivating people to give money. Most of us, certainly in my generation -- we all thought this was settled."
Republican campaigns have been much more reluctant to discuss their fundraising efforts or success around the birth control issue. The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated only one petition about the birth control rule, but left the words "birth control," "contraception," and "women's health" entirely out of it, focusing instead on the issue of religious freedom. The petition had only received 15,000 signatures by Monday afternoon -- a fraction of the DCCC's 250,000.
When asked about fundraising efforts, a staffer at the NRSC said only that it's hard to see how the DSCC's "gender war spin" can be taken seriously when two female GOP Senate candidates, Sarah Steelman in Missouri and Heather Wilson in New Mexico, oppose Obama's birth control rule.
Susan B. Anthony List, the anti-abortion alternative to EMILY's List, said it has been too busy educating people about the contraception mandate to fundraise around it. "We have not fundraised off of it yet, but we do plan to use it in races where we think it will make a difference," said SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser. "I think it will work in our direction. It is an underestimation of women that they are going see this issue as being about creating barriers to contraception and abortifacients -- that's not what this is. It's about something so much more fundamental: the right of conscience and religious liberty for all people, including women."
The Republican National Committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
Whether the Democrats can hold onto their momentum after the uproar over birth control dies down remains to be seen, but it's clear that they see their stance on the issue as crucial for rallying women voters in 2012. Obama relied on the women's vote to win the presidency in 2008, winning ten million more votes from women than men. The unexpected controversy around an issue as fundamental to women's health as birth control is making it easy for Democratic campaigns to fire up those same voters once again.
"The fortunate or unfortunate thing about this attack on women's health is that you don't really need strategies to incense people," said Coy. "The task is just to make sure people know that it's happening."
None of this would have been possible, it seems, had the birth control debate expanded beyond its original focus. At first, it was confined to a very limited question: could the federal government compel religious institutions to include contraception coverage in the health care plans they offered employees?
But questions of religious liberties were soon overshadowed by gender politics on the Hill. First, Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced an amendment to the surface transportation bill that would completely roll back the president’s birth control coverage rule and remove all of the non-discrimination protections from the Affordable Care Act. It was done under the auspices of decreasing regulations and boosting the free market. But many said that because the measure would essentially allow any employer or insurer to refuse to cover contraception, maternity care, or any other health care service by claiming a moral objection to it, it carried with it a true threat to women’s health care.
Friess' comments later that week caused further problems. Hammering the problematic imagery home even further, Bishop William Lori, the first witness on the House Oversight Committee's all-male panel on religious liberty, spent a full ten minutes comparing birth control to a ham sandwich. "The government recognized that it is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich," Lori said of Obama's revised birth control rule, "that it is downright surreal to apply this coercive power when the customer can get the same sandwich cheaply, or even free, just a few doors down."
Women's groups say they are not going to let that kind of rhetoric slide.
"It's a shame and it's appalling and it makes everybody really mad, but it's lucky we have a place to put all that energy," said McIntosh. "We have the luxury of saying, 'Yes, this is terrible, but look at all these great alternatives.' The women in office are on the front lines in this fight. Women like [Sen.] Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and [Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are standing up to the right, and everybody wants to send them more reinforcements."