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Women voters focusing more on issues, less on gender, as they approach Nov. 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2010 - With the election days away, President Barack Obama's national appeal to prospective women voters is aimed at women like Susan Kenny Mendelsohn, a retired nurse from Overland who now runs a flower shop.

Mendelsohn is a staunch Democrat who "really believes in the Democratic platform" and who "almost aways votes." The president and his allies want to make sure that Nov. 2 is one of those times.

But the Democratic pitch to women also re-energizes conservative opponents like Andrea Lukefahr, a real estate agent from Chesterfield who definitely plans to show up at the polls to register her opposition to what she sees as Democratic overspending in Washington.

She particularly opposes the federal health-care law, which Lukefahr says is too expensive and which she blames for the latest spike in private insurance premiums.

Scratch beneath the surface of both women's basic views, and you see some of the divides plaguing both political parties. Lukefahr plans to vote for Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Blunt, but she notes that she would like to see changes in both parties so that politicians in Washington would be "not so tied to special interests."

Mendelsohn supports Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, but she's doing so more because she dislikes Blunt. "I'm revolted by Mr. Blunt, his history, his politics, the fact that he will vote 'no' even if it hurts Missouri," Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn disagrees with some of Carnahan's stances, such as her support for extending all the Bush taxes, including those for people making more than $250,000 a year.

Leaders of both parties, nationally and regionally, are paying close attention to such views because -- if they show up at the polls -- women rule.

Since 1964, women often in the majority at the polls

For decades, women have been in the majority in the United States, as the largest share of the population and as voters. "Women could control the election if they all went out and voted," said state Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.

Polls and surveys since 1980 also have shown that a majority of women voters tend to support Democrats, in some elections by double-digits. That allegience helps explain why Obama has been holding women-only events lately around the country.

Getting more women to the polls helps the Democratic Party counter the preference of a majority of male voters for Republicans.

Those same surveys also indicate that women, as a bloc, tend to make up their minds later than men on which candidates to support. In other words: Most of the remaining undecided voters are believed to be women.

In 1994, when Republicans last snagged control of Congress, some exit polls indicated that a key reason for that year's GOP wave was that millions of would-be Democratic women voters stayed home. Faced with potentially huge congressional losses this year, Democrats are trying to avoid a replay by motivating women to vote.

This time, Democrats are concerned about recent surveys signalling that women may be more evenly divided between the major parties. The latest poll by the nonpartisan Pew Foundation found women voters as a group appeared to be leaning Republican this election cycle.

Such a shift, experts say, could help explain why Republican candidates -- as a group -- appear to be in stronger shape in many contests.

There also appears to be less talk of the "soccer moms," or "security moms," as both parties appear to be reaching beyond their usual quest for support of women of child-bearing age. In midterm elections, older women represent a prized voting bloc because the elderly are the most reliable voters and often make up a larger portion of the electorate when overall turnout is lower.

A defection of women into the GOP column could be explained, in part, as a result of the rise of the Republican Party's women political "stars," notably former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the current crowd of women GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate.

The large crop of high-profile conservative women fits in with the narrative that the perception of women voters -- and women candidates -- has changed since the 1960s, when "teas" were the norm, and a woman running for office was a rarity.

Now, women candidates are seen as so prolific that women voters lately appear to be discounting gender as a factor, focusing on candidates' views instead. In 2008, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't feel a need to emphasize her gender -- and make a direct appeal to women voters -- until late in the campaign when she was losing to rival Barack Obama.

This campaign year, at least, women candidates appear outright reluctant to focus on gender. The two women at the top of Missouri's ticket on Nov. 2, Carnahan and state Auditor Susan Montee, aren't citing their gender at all as they reach out for votes.

Blunt, for example, has a Women for Blunt group. Carnahan and Montee do not.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says it's obvious why the candidates are approaching women voters differently. As a Republican, the professor explained, "it was initially important for Blunt to diminish that advantage" that Carnahan might have among women because she's a Democrat and a woman.

But Carnahan, said Robertson, needs men supporters as well. "She's concerned about appearing independent enough and tough enough," he continued, adding that quest helps explain why Carnahan's favorite campaign word on the stump is "bull."

Linda McDaniel, St. Louis co-president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, said her group has seen heightened interest by women across the spectrum. More women are showing up at League-sponsored debates and forums, she said, and volunteering to join.

There's also a wider variety of views espoused by some of the region's best-known women political activists, as more conservative women take the stage

Women conservatives snag more attention

St. Louis Tea Party leaders Dana Loesch and Gina Loudon both have radio shows and have been prominent national conservative figures. And this summer, state Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, was in the spotlight as one of the leaders of the successful drive to pass Proposition C, which seeks to allow Missouri to opt out of the federal health-care mandates.

Cunningham disagrees with any special focus of "women voters," saying that women and men are showing heightened concern in the "overreaching" growth and cost of government.

"I don't see it as a gender-specific phenomenon," Cunningham said.

But Loudon says she believes that more women are getting involved in politics, and many of them are conservatives. "Women have been conservative traditionally. The question has been how involved they were," Loudon said. "I do believe there is a definite demographic shift by minorities and women" toward more conservative beliefs and candidates.

"I think people are tired of being labeled," Loudon added.

State Rep. Jeannette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, agrees that "women are not a monolithic lump."

That said, Oxford also believes that women Democrats are energized and will show up at the polls. "I think it's building," she said.

Schupp added that women need to be paying more attention to the health-care debate and get a greater understanding of what's in the federal health-care law -- and what's at stake this November if Democrats suffer major losses.

"When women think about how health care will affect their families," she said, "I would hope that would get them out of their seats."

And into the voting booth.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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