STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, Republicans in North Carolina are holding a primary. They will be choosing who will go up against incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagen in the fall, and this is important for Republicans because the party has a problem with women. That is to say that since the 1980s, women have been much more likely to vote Democratic than men.
Increasingly, Republican operatives see the women's vote as key to their party's future. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith continues our series "She Votes."
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Equal Pay Day is a political holiday, one Democrats have used to push a bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act and one Republicans have felt free to ignore. But this year the GOP responded with a coordinated campaign that is a case study in the new, more female-friendly Republican approach.
REPRESENTATIVE CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: I'm sure you're aware that today is Equal Pay Day.
KEITH: This is Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, appearing at a press conference that morning.
RODGERS: And as a woman, and as one that has two daughters, I've always supported equal pay for equal work, as have all of us. And what we're promoting as Republicans are those policies that are going to empower women and everyone.
KEITH: This response was carefully crafted, the result of polls and focus groups and months of meetings among leading party operatives. Kirsten Kukowski is the press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
KIRSTEN KUKOWSKI: What we said in our argument this time can't even be compared to anything. It's getting in the game versus not.
KEITH: It began shortly after the 2012 presidential election, when Mitt Romney lost the women's vote by 11 percentage points. This prompted all the major GOP groups, the NRCC, the NRSC, the RNC, the College Republicans and others, to begin working together, holding regular meetings with the sole purpose of figuring out how to better appeal to women.
Kukowski says a few months ago, Equal Pay Day came up.
KUKOWSKI: We had been having these conversations, somebody who said, oh, Equal Pay Day is this day. The Democrats are going to be doing Paycheck Fairness. We need to start having a strategy.
KEITH: Kukowski says they sought out a poll on the Paycheck Fairness Act. It found that if Republicans were silent on the legislation, as they have been in the past, they would lose the issue.
KUKOWSKI: We kind of said we're going to have an aggressive posture on this. We're going to show women, we're going to show D.C. and the political world that we're not going to take a back seat to this anymore and we're going to be aggressive on this messaging.
KEITH: There were more meetings. A memo was drafted from three female operatives at the top GOP political committees. A staffer at the RNC spent a whole week using public records to determine the gender pay gap in the offices of Democratic politicians. The poll also found that Republicans needed to make an economic argument.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And joining us now to talk about the gender pay gap, the national press secretary for the RNC, Kirsten Kukowski.
KEITH: Kukowski appeared not once but twice on MSNBC on Equal Pay Day.
KUKOWSKI: What we don't agree with is that we need to have more government, more regulation that's actually going to end up hurting women and in fact all employees.
KEITH: It goes without saying that Democrats disagreed with this argument, but the mere fact that Republicans were engaging was a change.
ANDREA BOZEK: You know, it's kind of like football. If only the defense is working and the offense isn't, you're not going to win the game.
KEITH: Andrea Bozek is the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. She says this was just the beginning of Republicans playing offense when it comes to women.
BOZEK: Women are 54 percent of the electorate. They aren't a coalition, they are the majority, and if you aren't, you know, actively engaging with women voters, you're going to lose.
KEITH: Many Republicans have been reluctant to engage on so-called women's issues for fear of getting sucked into the war-on-women narrative. In 2012, two male Senate candidates saw their chances tank when they made comments about rape that were, at best, unfortunate. And in part that's what prompted McMorris Rodgers, who heads the House Republican Conference, to push back.
RODGERS: We have allowed ourselves to be branded a way that I do not believe is representative of who we are as Republicans.
KEITH: Under McMorris Rodgers' direction, House Republicans sat their members and candidates down for training about how to communicate with women. She believes that women just need to know what Republican policies could do for their families. And that's where Katie Packer Gage comes in. She's a partner in Burning Glass Consulting.
KATE PACKER GAGE: Which is a Republican political consulting firm that specializes in messaging to women.
KEITH: Gage was deputy campaign manager on the 2012 Romney campaign and she was frustrated that Democrats were very specifically targeting women while the Romney campaign wasn't.
GAGE: We felt that there should have been more attention paid to that and maybe more of an effort to push back more aggressively on that messaging.
KEITH: At one point, Romney's lead ad maker, who is also now also a partner at Burning Glass, came up with an ad called "Dear Daughter."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dear daughter, welcome to America. Your share of Obama's debt is over $50,000, and it grows every day.
KEITH: Gage says it was a negative ad without the negative tone.
GAGE: It was very kind of soft in its approach to communicating a negative about Barack Obama. And the pushback that we heard from some of the men on the team was it's not message-driven enough.
KEITH: She says it got very limited play in a couple of states on daytime television, and it's entirely possible more ads like that wouldn't have helped anyway. But she says if Republicans want women to listen, they need to stop bombarding them with data and connect their message with people's day-to-day concerns. Don't talk about energy, talk about gas prices. Don't talk about Obamacare, talk about getting to see your doctor.
GAGE: If you can demonstrate some compassion for people in general, even if it's not specific to women, women respond to that.
KEITH: It may not matter much in this midterm election because the voters who turn out in non-presidential election years tend to be heavily Republican. But Gage says winning more women matters for the future of the party.
GAGE: We're not even suggesting that we have to win women to win. We just have to win more women. We can't lose them quite like we have in 2012 and 2013.
KEITH: But it is going to take more than soft tones for Republicans to win the women's vote, says Debbie Walsh. She's director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
DEBBIE WALSH: The cause of that gender gap is around those economic security issues, those kind of kitchen-table economic issues. And the challenge that the Republican Party has is how they articulate their support for that social safety net that women feel they might need at some point in their lives.
KEITH: As it stands, the majority of female voters believe the Democratic Party is the one that supports the social safety net. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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