These days, you’re likelier to hear Republicans and political reporters use the phrase “war on women” than Democrats. After the 2012 election, conservatives infused the words with immense significance, as if the phrase itself, rather than the substantive themes it evoked, were the key to explaining the Republican party's female voter problem.
But it turns out, the GOP’s problems communicating with female voters didn’t disappear when Democrats stopped saying "war on women" all the time and began describing the GOP’s social agenda in different ways.
Two of the most eye-catching political ads this week feature Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker and New Hampshire’s GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown peering into cameras to set things straight about their records on women’s reproductive rights. Walker obliquely addresses the charges in this EMILY’s list segment that he opposes all abortions, and signed a law intended to make it harder for doctors to perform abortions. (He did.) Brown mostly just dodges the claims Democratic candidate Jeanne Shaheen’s campaign made here, that he supported state legislation in Massachusetts that would've forced women seeking abortions to look at pictures of unborn fetuses. (It would've forced doctors to give those photos to their patients.)
Neither the EMILY’s List ad nor the Shaheen ad allude to a Republican “war on women,” but both refer to legislation their Republican opponents supported. And both elicited from Walker and Brown, respectively, the kinds of responses that candidates usually reserve for moments when they worry an effective attack is taking hold.
These aren’t the first straight-to-camera response ads of the cycle (see Michelle Nunn, the Democrats’ Georgia Senate candidate, here). But they speak to an urgency you don’t normally see when male candidates (particularly GOP candidates) address women’s issues—unless they’ve lost control of the narrative.
Obviously Walker and Brown are trying to head off a much different story than Todd Akin was. They’re defending and spinning their governing records. Akin’s problem was much more intractable, and the subtext of his comments about rape were much farther outside the political mainstream than the kinds of anti-abortion legislation Walker and Brown have supported. But that doesn’t mean their records are easy to defend to women voters. They're troubling on their own terms, whether cast as part of a “war on women” or not.
Corection: A previous version of this article referred to New Hampshire GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown as Scott Walker.