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In her race against former Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, incumbent New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, is pushing hard for the women's vote, which for three decades has tilted toward her party.
But Brown, in an attempt to narrow that gender gap, is focusing on a perceived vulnerability for Democratic candidates: women's disenchantment with President Obama's foreign policy.
Focusing On Unmarried Women
"This race is going to be won by those of us who turn out, and if women turn out I'm going to win," Shaheen told a crowd in Exeter, at an appearance billed as a "women's event."
Shaheen listed the issues she says will win the women's vote: her support for pay equity and for abortion rights, and her support for funding kindergarten during her time as governor.
And while answering a question from her mostly female audience, she focused on unmarried women — a group that reliably votes Democratic, but that isn't too reliable about showing up at the polls in years (such as this one) that do not feature a presidential election.
"It's those unmarried women, those non-college educated women who we need to make sure come out and vote," she said. "And we need to let them know what's at stake in this election."
When Brown, then running in Massachusetts, beat Martha Coakley for a U.S. Senate seat back in 2010, exit polls showed unmarried women didn't turn out in great numbers.
And recent polls place Brown even or within striking distance of Shaheen, demonstrating why she might be anxious to reach this specific demographic.
But the polls also show that women favor Shaheen by more than 10 points — with one poll last week giving her an edge of more than 20 points among women.
That gender gap, first observed at the national level in the 1980s, tends to favor Democrats. It could be pretty hard for Brown to overcome.
Narrowing The Gap
"I'm not impressed. He doesn't have a uterus, he doesn't know what he's talking about," Concord resident Joellen Isabelle said of Brown.
But Isabelle's support for Shaheen goes beyond simple anatomy. She says Shaheen will do a better job protecting women's access to contraception, health care and funding for mental health treatment. She doesn't trust Republicans with a budget, either.
But with a race that could be decided by a percentage point or two -- fewer than 10,000 votes in this small state — it's apparently worth Brown's time to try to narrow the gap.
One of Brown's online ads, titled "Women for Brown," highlights New Hampshire Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte's support for Brown.
Four years ago, Ayotte handily beat her male Democratic opponent Paul Hodes, winning 55 percent of the women's vote.
And while Ayotte may help Brown bridge the gap, he appears to be working another angle too: women's rising unhappiness with President Obama's foreign policy.
"We saw this phenomenon back in 2004, with what was known as the 'security moms,'" explained Patrick Murray, who directs the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Murray says what happened to John Kerry in 2004 is hurting Obama now: He's getting negative reviews from women concerned about the threat posed by Islamic radicals abroad.
Murray's watching three close Senate races — in Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire — that all pit a Democratic woman against a Republican man.
"The Republican is looking at a fairly close race, the ability to catch up, but the Democratic nominee has a double-digit lead among women," Murray said. "And the question is: How do you cut into that lead? And it appears that they are going to use this terrorism scare."
Messages like this salvo from Brown — one of many he's launched in speeches and ads: "Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country. President Obama and Sen. Shaheen seem confused about the nature of this threat. Not me. I want to secure the border."
"They are using a language that has subtle gender clues -- confused, soft, turning a blind eye -- things that they hope will play into prejudices about a woman not being able to be a strong leader or take decisive action when it’s required," Murray explained. "It's all about turning these women voters against their fellow women who are running for Senate."
Similar language is also turning up in ads in the other states. And whether it's a reflection of national trends, a response to Brown's campaigning, or a direct response to Shaheen's Senate record, there are New Hampshire women like Amie Lupango who voted for Shaheen before but are now voting for Brown.
"I voted for her, but I'm changing my mind about that," Lupango said.
Lupango agrees with Brown about the need to secure the country's borders, and she says she's worried about the way Obama is handling the so-called Islamic State.
"He's dilly-dallying on his response to them, and he's just not responding aggressively," she said.
While Brown probes for chinks in Shaheen's support from women, she is fighting back hard. This week, she is ramping up advertising efforts to create doubt about Brown’s insistence that he is pro-choice.
The ad hammers Brown for co-sponsoring a failed bill when he was in the Massachusetts Legislature that would have required doctors to get “informed consent” from women seeking an abortion, by providing them with color photographs or drawings of fetuses and other information pro-abortion rights groups oppose.
Brown says Shaheen is distorting his record, and that the pregnant women could have just thrown the material in the trash without even looking at it.
That tense back-and-forth over the women’s vote promises to continue through election day.
This segment aired on October 9, 2014.
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