Republicans are countering the “war on women” narrative set by Democrats by featuring domestic violence victims in their campaign ads this election cycle. The marketing tactic spotlights the Violence Against Women Act, a law that was reauthorized last year after 160 members of Congress voted against it -- all of them Republicans.
Why are GOP candidates bringing attention to a bill passed nearly two years ago when the economy, health care and the rise of ISIS are the top concerns on voters’ minds currently? Because the party is finally fighting back against Democratic attacks after two years of silence and, in doing so, it's trying to court votes from a large constituency: women.
“In the past, Republicans have failed to answer,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist and pollster who tested one of the domestic violence ads for an outside group on behalf of Montana Senate candidate Steve Daines. “Some of these ads are just clearing the record.”
The so-called war on women has been a theme used by Democrats against Republicans in recent years, pointing to GOP conservative stances on abortion and health care access such as Virginia’s failed vaginal ultrasound law or former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin claiming that women can't get pregnant if they're victims of “legitimate rape” during his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign.
Republicans are striking back with ads that call attention to state domestic violence laws or personal domestic violence experiences. For instance, New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown's sister, LeAnn Riley, details her experience with childhood abuse in an ad for her brother's campaign. She said Brown "was there to protect [me] and my mom" from abuse by their father.
Domestic violence victim Rebekah Uzenski appeared in an ad for Daines, a Republican who represents Montana in the U.S. House, praising him for voting for the Violence Against Women Act. "I am so thankful that there's men like Steve out there that actually stand up for women's rights and what is right. He is courageous," she says in the ad.
Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, a domestic violence victim-turned-advocate, recounted how she was left for dead by her ex-husband and later worked with Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on domestic violence legislation. "He cares about women and Wisconsin families," she says in the ad.
The ads are airing at a time when domestic violence is at the forefront of American discourse, following an NFL scandal centering on Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel.
Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said Republicans likely won't be accused of using the ads to take advantage of an issue in the headlines. Gandy said the danger is domestic violence victims being unknowledgeable of the record of the candidate whose ad in which they are appearing. Aside from that, Gandy said the advertisements work.
“I think having a person who has survived domestic violence speak on your behalf is pretty powerful and effective,” she said.
While it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of one ad on a campaign, even objective observers say the spots are achieving their purpose with little to no downside for Republicans.
“I think even [with] the political climate, I think they’re pretty smart for what they’re attempting to do here,” said Wendy Melillo, a public communications professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “That [war on women] narrative is definitely sticking, so the Republicans have to do something. If they don’t do something, they’re in serious danger of getting hurt in the midterm elections.”
Melillo said the only potential backlash would be if a candidate portrays themselves as protecting women when their actions contradict that description. “The truth isn’t what advertising is about,” Melillo said.
That was the case with U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., whose Violence Against Women Act-themed ad erroneously stated he voted for the bill. Southerland actually voted in favor of a version of the legislation that barred protections for gays and illegal immigrants, but that iteration of the bill wasn’t the one that ultimately passed both houses of Congress. His Democratic challenger, Gwen Graham, responded within 24 hours of Southerland’s spot with her own ad to clear the air. The race, in northwest Florida, is considered a toss-up by Real Clear Politics.
Watch some of the ads below: