OTI Online
Fall 1998

Turnout Or Turnoff
Women's vote is key in 1998
by Tanya Melich


For both parties, the stakes in this November's off-year election are higher than usual. The 11-vote Republican majority in the House of Representatives is the narrowest margin in half a century. Republicans control the Senate by 10 votes, but don't have the numbers to break a filibuster. Polls and pundits predict the GOP will hold the Senate, but the House is up for grabs - the Democrats must defend 16 open seats, the Republicans, 17.

And their high stakes are women's high stakes. If Democrats and moderate Republicans are replaced by Republicans who support religious-right positions, the 1998 election could cause further erosion of women's right to choose, further cuts in education and social programs that disproportionately affect the poor, and the privatization of Social Security, among other things. At the state level, much tougher divorce laws and control over the redrawing of Congressional boundaries after the 2000 census are on the line.

The outcome of campaigns around the country will be determined by the number of women who care enough about their rights to get out and vote

Women are the target of a new GOP strategy that aims to keep right-wing women in the fold and persuade centrist women to turn back to their Republican roots, and at the same time, so turn off traditional Democratic women to their party that they'll stay away from the polls in disgust. This plan builds on the big lesson of 1996: The Republican war-against-women strategy so alienated women that, for the second time, women voters won the White House for Clinton. Democrats, needless to say, are hoping to hold together the centrist and traditional coalition that re-elected Clinton (even if it didn't do so well for the party in the House and Senate).

With the major exception of reproductive choice, national Republicans are pursuing the new strategy both by reducing the number and volume of their attacks on women's rights and by adopting a version of the kinder, gentler family-values strategy Clinton used so effectively in 1996. They are working to eliminate the marriage penalty from the income tax, and backing vouchers for religious and private schools. At the state level, they are pushing marriage-covenant laws and stricter divorce regulations, both of which will make marriages harder to dissolve.

Other issues to watch: attempts to defeat a bill cosponsored by U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) and Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.) that would require private insurance to cover contraceptive drugs and services, and an expected overturn of Clinton's veto of the "partial birth" abortion bill that will lay the groundwork for a ban on most second and third-trimester abortions.

The turnoff portion of the GOP program began in late spring, when Republicans deliberately shifted the public debate in Washington away from education, health care, and the budget to morality and political scandal - Monica Lewinsky, campaign finance irregularities, the China defense technology flap. Many women are furious with Clinton. He has given Republicans ample opportunity to label Democrats immoral in the same way Democrats managed to convince the public to identify the GOP with extremism.

Republican leaders are betting that going after allegedly corrupt Democrats will not backfire. They hope that enough American swing voters, especially centrist women, will be sufficiently sickened by the Democrats' lax ethics to vote Republican - or stay home altogether and yield control of many elections to the conservatives, as happened in the 1996 House races.

The approach may be working. In spring, polls showed Democrats with a modest lead in House races. But by early summer, as the Republican morality offensive took off, the Pew Research Institute reported that Democrats and Republicans were statistically tied; and white women and older voters, the groups that are the mainstay of Democratic victories, were leaning toward the GOP. Unless the Democrats can move the debate away from scandal, they may lose out.

To win, the Democrats must get their voters to the polls. Outside the South, the majority of voters tend to support Democratic positions on education, health care, jobs, reproductive choice, gun control, child care, and protection of Social Security and Medicare. The problem for Democrats is to energize their base, and these mainstream issues alone aren't doing it. Campaign finance reform and tobacco legislation are potential vote-getters, but so far the general public has not responded.

In shaping their strategy, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott have to deal with how that agenda plays in the national arena. The GOP's national delegate and presidential convention machinery is indeed solidly in the hands of the religious right, who are loudly declaring that their political time has come.

Christian right leaders Gary Bauer and James Dobson have put the squeeze on the Republican congressional leadership. In mid-June, they heated up a national Republican meeting in Iowa by decrying, as reported in USA Today, "a godless America 'in moral free-fall,' where kids kill their newborns and each other." They attacked tolerance of homosexuals, violence and sex in the media, abortion, and premarital sex.

Calls for men to dominate The same week, Trent Lott said he believes homosexuality is a sin and that gay people should be helped to deal with it "just like alcohol... or sex addiction... or kleptomaniacs." Some potential presidential candidates, such as Bauer and Alan Keyes, are using Promise Keeper and Black Muslim rhetoric, calling on men to take their rightful place at the head of the family.

The nation's electoral politics are too diverse and regional for results to be determined by any single issue. Many elections will turn on the personality and record of individual candidates, and incumbency tends to be an advantage. But, as the "Ten Races to Watch" Box (see page 51) shows, key elections in a number of states will be decided, often with razor-thin margins, by who goes to the polls and who stays home.

The outcome of campaigns around the country will be determined by the number of women who care enough about their rights to get out and vote. If they don't, the religious right will be in a position to seriously bully the majority of Americans who don't hold to their views. As the millennium dawns, the nation could find itself debating yet again whether women should return to their traditional role as housewives subservient to, and dependent on, their husbands. With all the problems America and the world face, this is a fight we don't need to have.


New York-based Tanya Melich is a political analyst and author of The Republican War Against Women (Bantam paperback, new edition 1998).


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