Election post mortem 2012 has begun. Liberals will credit the Obama campaign's superior ground game. Conservatives will blame the media, and maybe even last week's devastating hurricane. Sandy does bear responsibility for the president's victory, that's for certain, but not Sandy the hurricane. Think instead of Sandy as the female voter -- and millions like her who rejected GOP pandering on reproductive health services.
During the closing months of this election, it seemed as if not a week went by without another extreme GOP candidate making bizarre and ignorant comments on reproductive health issues. From Todd Akin to Richard Mourdock, Joe Walsh and others, these men strung together missives so offensive that even the most loyal Republicans were shaking their heads in disbelief. Subsequent "apologies" tried to obfuscate the real issue -- their support for policies that seek to limit the reproductive health options for women and families, including victims of rape.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan sought a way around this discussion and tried to appeal to women by directly linking them to their jobs and economy message. Women understand pocketbook issues as well as men, they pandered. "Moms drive the economy," shouted bumper stickers. But what the Republicans failed to understand -- again -- is that women are keenly aware that reproductive health issues are, in fact, pocketbook issues. Equity in prescription coverage, access to cost-effective reproductive care and having the ability to plan when to begin or expand a family are perhaps the most important factors in women's earning potential and in the budgets of American families.
In a year when a focus on high unemployment and a sluggish economy should have propelled the GOP to victories, the electorate faced a constant barrage of out-of-touch legislation on issues such as forced ultrasounds, eviscerated support for family planning, and a denial of full medical options to victims of rape.
These realities -- and a growing concern that the GOP simply doesn't understand women -- were enough to lift Obama into the "win" column once again. American women, who were 53 percent of the overall vote, allied behind him with an 11 percent gender advantage over Romney.
Across the country, mainstream Republican candidates like Judy Biggert and Scott Brown worked hard to promote their big tent platform. They outlined their strong independent records and a real path for how fiscally conservative, socially moderate leaders like them could positively impact the Congressional agenda. Yet with each step forward they were pushed back by the worries that the GOP as a whole was just too extreme.
Seeing an opening, Democratic candidates linked even pro-choice Republicans to the party's larger social agenda. The president launched his own highly effective media attack. According to women's health advocates, more than 46,000 ads highlighted reproductive issues during the course of the campaign. In the end, Republicans lost the support of women and moderate voters and vital seats were delivered to the Democratic Party.
Has the Republican Party finally hit rock bottom? That remains to be seen. What is obvious is that an extreme social agenda is the road to nowhere. Romney's loss and those of centrist Republicans are painful reminders that if the party is to thrive, it must adopt a more welcoming stance toward women that reflects a true understanding of their lives, and that includes a more intelligent position on reproductive health issues.
There is common ground. Pregnancy prevention, family planning and reproductive health education are areas where we can find agreement and have a genuine impact on the lives of women and their families. Needless to say, access to affordable contraception is the very best way to reduce the need for and number of abortions.
And for those who contend to be fiscally conservative, let's not forget the economic impact of responsible family planning. For every $1 invested, nearly $4 are saved. That's an impressive return at a time when rising health care costs are crippling state and federal budgets. It is simply fiscally irresponsible to fail to fund sound family planning.
Mitt Romney's loss is a missed opportunity for the Republican Party to reclaim the White House in this year of serious economic threats to our country. The party's failure to recognize the big tent values of building a coalition of Republicans has been to its electoral detriment. Success in 2016 and beyond will hinge on the Party's ability to set aside its extremist social agenda and embrace the diverse views of all Republicans.
Meteorologists called last week's Sandy a 100-year storm. For the GOP, failure to change will mean that their own Sandy -- the voting wrath of the female electorate -- will come far more frequently and with increasing force.