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A number of Republican candidates are taking up an unexpected issue in this fall's campaign. Over-the-counter birth control - they're for it, not against it. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson looks at the politics behind this unlikely embrace.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: A string of Republican candidates for Senator supporting an issue usually associated with Democrats - increased access to contraception.
CORY GARDNER: I believe the pill ought to be available over-the-counter, round-the-clock without a prescription.
TOM TILLIS: I think over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription.
ED GILLESPIE: And it should be available over-the-counter. I would support that.
LIASSON: That's Cory Gardner, Tom Tillis and Ed Gillespie - all pro-life conservatives, some associated with state legislation to restrict abortions or with personhood amendments that would give constitutional rights to fertilized eggs. So what gives? First of all, Republicans are in a deep hole with women voters. And polls show all voters are less likely to support candidates who restrict women's reproductive rights. Republican strategist Katie Packer Gage says the GOP needed to get out of their defensive crouch.
KATIE PACKER GAGE: Republicans, when they saw what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012 where women's groups very falsely and very aggressively attacked him claiming that he wanted to do away with birth control, I think Republicans started to say, look, you know, we're going to have to play offense on this message because otherwise we're going to be totally misdefined by our opponents.
LIASSON: Calling for an over-the-counter pill allows Republicans to support access to birth control while also supporting the right of corporations to avoid covering birth control. Getting the pill at a pharmacy without a prescription leaves insurers and employers out of the picture altogether. But some Republicans are having trouble with their new talking points. Here's Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman in a recent debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE COFFMAN: And I'm proud of that. And I do not support personhood. But I support a woman's access to - certainly to this Hobby Lobby decision to - to get...
LIASSON: At that excruciating moment, Coffman is rescued by the audience who feeds him the word he's been looking for.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Birth control.
LIASSON: Democrats do not find this the least bit funny.
CECILE RICHARDS: It is really quite ironic that suddenly now, you know, the Republican Party and candidates after voting repeatedly to take away birth control access for women are trying to kind of do this before the November elections.
LIASSON: That's Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood.
RICHARDS: It has no credibility based on their voting records. What it demonstrates is how important women's health is as an issue to women voters and how important it will be in this election.
LIASSON: Planned Parenthood is also for over-the-counter birth control. But so far, no drug company has asked the FDA for permission to sell contraception over-the-counter. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says Democrats should respond to Republicans with an argument about cost and fairness because insurers generally do not cover over-the-counter medicine, and the pill can cost $600 a year.
CELINDA LAKE: When voters hear that Republicans support your employer denying coverage for birth control when Viagra is still covered, they're very angry about it. When we make the argument, it really backfires because women say this is going to cost me $600, and this is a very cynical ploy.
LIASSON: But Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says the GOP has finally found a way to blunt the Democrats' charge that Republicans are conducting a so-called war on women.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: What's happened with the over-the-counter birth control issue is that the Democrats didn't see it coming. They think that they've got a monopoly on talking to women from the waist down. Anything that has to do with reproduction and birth control and abortion - they call it, quote, "women's health" and they call it women's issues. They feel like how dare the loyal opposition go ahead and take them on and really neutralize and defang this issue.
LIASSON: There's no doubt Republicans are trying harder this election year to appeal to women - a big difference from the last two cycles when some GOP candidates alienated female voters with comments about rape and unwanted pregnancies. The Republicans know they can't eliminate the gender gap altogether, they just hope to shrink it enough to win elections. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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