January 2, 2013
by Valerie Richardson
DENVER — Colorado's Debbie Brown, a savvy former Republican campaign operative, made it her mission in 2012 to disarm the biggest guns in the Democrats' "war on women" strategy.
Even though President Obama won the state, Mrs. Brown's efforts made Colorado the only swing state where Republican challenger Mitt Romney reversed the gender gap and won more support from women than men — an effort Mrs. Brown said should be a template for Republicans in future elections.
"We created and led a coalition in Colorado, collaborating with a couple other efforts, that to my knowledge wasn't duplicated anywhere else," said Mrs. Brown, who ran Republican Rep. Mike Coffman's 2010 campaign after spending 15 years in corporate marketing.
Like many Colorado conservatives, Mrs. Brown was devastated after Republican Ken Buck lost the 2010 Senate race to Democrat Michael F. Bennet. An election postmortem found that suburban female voters swung strongly for Mr. Bennet after Democrats blanketed the airwaves with ads declaring that Mr. Buck was waging a "war on women" on issues such as abortion and birth control.
The strategy proved so successful that Democrats — up to and including Mr. Obama — took the message nationwide last year.
In Colorado, however, Mrs. Brown was ready.
Shortly after the 2010 race, she founded the Colorado Women's Alliance, a group aimed at expanding the definition of women's issues beyond those centering on reproduction. She developed a media team of bloggers, writers and commentators who reached out to female voters with a focus on the economy, jobs and the national debt.
The alliance begot several other statewide groups with broader messages for female voters, including My Purse Politics and I Am Created Equal.
At the same time, the Romney campaign's "Women for Mitt" arm was stocked with active and high-profile Colorado Republican women, led by former state first lady Frances Owens, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and political strategist Monica Owens.
The group stayed visible throughout the campaign by bringing in well-known Republican women as speakers and holding frequent rallies and phone banks. "Women for Mitt" bumper stickers were as prevalent in some Colorado neighborhoods as "Romney-Ryan" yard signs.
"I think the Obama campaign and the Democrats tried to build up the whole 'war on women,' and it didn't resonate here," said Monica Owens, director of the Romney camp's "Women for Mitt" effort. "I'm proud to say Colorado women didn't fall for that."
It's possible that after two years of the "war on women," Colorado women had heard enough about abortion, birth control and reproductive health.
"Colorado performed far differently than the remainder of the swing states," said the conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics. "Perhaps it's because the 'war on women' model was developed here and women are growing weary of talking about their reproductive organs. Or maybe, while Republicans were not successful this election, there were some groups on the right that fought back against the left's outrageous attacks."
Exit polls conducted by Edison Research for news agencies show that Mr. Romney captured 49 percent of the female vote and 46 percent of the male vote. In fact, Colorado was the only one of nine swing states where the Republican presidential nominee won a greater percentage of votes from women than from men. Mr. Obama took 50 percent of the vote in the Centennial State, repeating his 2008 win over Republican nominee John McCain.
Not everyone is buying it.
Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, attributes the reversal of the gender gap to faulty polling.
"I have an easy explanation: There is something wrong with the exit poll in Colorado or the way the results were reported," Ms. Carroll said in an email.
Joe Lenski, executive vice president for Edison Research in Somerville, N.J., said he stood by the results. Edison has been the sole provider of election exit polling to the major news networks since 2003.
Nationwide, Mr. Obama lost a small percentage of the female vote from 2008. Against Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama had a 14 percentage point advantage, but that dipped to 12 percentage points against Mr. Romney, according to a Gallup Poll analysis.
Although Colorado may have been an outlier, Mr. Obama's strong performance with women was a key to his electoral win.
In Ohio, perhaps the most heavily contested swing state, Mr. Obama carried the female vote by 12 percentage points. Reflecting a pattern in many states, Mr. Romney won among men in New Hampshire by 4 percentage points but lost the female vote in the state by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin.
Colorado Republicans also avoided campaign trail gaffes over such hot-button social issues as rape and abortion that helped torpedo the hopes of Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana.
Ms. Owens said the challenge now for Colorado Republican women is to maintain their network in a non-election year in order to be ready for 2014.
"Now that we have it going, I want to keep it alive so that we don't have to rebuild it again," she said. "We need to keep these connections so that we don't have to start from scratch."