It’s down to the wire in the Virginia Senate race, and between “macaca,” naughty novels and possible assault charges, the mudslinging couldn’t get much uglier. But with the candidates neck-and-neck in the final days before the election, both sides are scrambling to find the deciding factor that will push the other over the edge. According to the New York Times, that crucial factor looks to be women voters, leaving the parties with a new challenge: How do two notoriously testosterone-soaked candidates woo female support in a state that’s increasingly divided between the upper-middle-class Democrats of Northern Virginia and the staunchly conservative habitants of the southern region?
For starters, both sides have recruited politically savvy women to assist in the final push, with Lynda Robb, wife of former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, publicly endorsing Democratic candidate Jim Webb, and Republican strategist Mary Matalin lobbying for incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen. While Robb, daughter of LBJ and adept political tap-dancer in her own right, is lauding Webb as “understanding the needs of Virginia’s families,” Matalin’s strategy reportedly consists of encouraging women to “talk to your girlfriends” in support of Allen. It’s an interesting choice of words, evoking images of beehived matrons gabbing at the local beauty parlor. What civic-minded woman wouldn’t be moved by such inspiring language?
But as the Times points out, the real battle for female votes is being fought on the air, as both parties lob cannonballs via carefully orchestrated TV spots aimed at influencing women. Webb’s tactic has been to dig into “woman-friendly” issues like healthcare costs, college tuition rates and legislation governing family and medical leave. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, has placed its bet on good old-fashioned character attacks, running ads featuring heavily hyped steamy scenes from Webb’s previously published novels as proof of the former Marine’s “chauvinistic attitudes.” No policy discussions, no attacks on the challenger’s stance on the minimum wage or immigration — just a serious-looking female announcer invoking PG-13 passages from a 28-year-old first novel. Women may not love Webb’s writing, but they also may not appreciate the assumption that their votes rest not on, say, support for withdrawal from Iraq, but an awkwardly written sex scene.
It’s certainly cheering that both candidates have readily acknowledged the importance of the female constituency and devoted time, money and energy to women voters. But if Republican strategists still think the way to capture female votes is through patronizing messages and “salacious” book reviews, they may want to rethink their assessment of the grasp we girls hold on politics.