By Bonnie Erbe
A moderate Republican friend recently remarked she wished former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had won the GOP presidential nomination so that the party could run a religious extremist as a presidential candidate and experience a wipeout in the general election. That, she opined, would show the party once and for all that it could not win elections by pandering to an extremist base and would return the party to fiscally conservative, socially moderate control.
Santorum has since dropped out of the race. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is no Santorum on social issues, even though he played one during the primary season to woo extremist primary voters. But the GOP's months-long focus on contraceptives (and Romney's concurrence with its anti-contraceptives stance) have accomplished what my friend sought: It has driven women and independent male voters into the arms of Democrats.
A spate of recent polls by USA Today/Gallup, the Pew Research Center for People & the Press and others confirm a growing gender gap on the presidential level, with President Barack Obama doing better with women voters than presumed Republican nominee Romney.
EMILY's List deputy communications director Jess McIntosh told the website TPM, "Women are rightly seeing this as a party-wide obsession for the Republicans, and you're going to see that play out in races all over the country."
Yes, but. But for the fact it is a long time between now and November and it's up to Democrats to keep the issue alive. They must not keep it alive but also use it to drive women and men, who were turned off by GOP extremism on this issue, to the polls.
The momentum seems to be there. A Gallup poll also shows that women voters are 20 percentage points "more likely than men to rate government policies relating to birth control as important." At the same time, Democrats still rate access to birth control as less important than a lot of other issues including the deficit, healthcare, defense, gas prices and unemployment.
But what if, as is widely expected, the U.S. Supreme Court throws out the Obama administration's version of healthcare reform, often referred to as "Obamacare"? Access to contraceptives first arose as an issue as a result of healthcare reform's passage. Will voters forget about contraceptives and focus instead on reinvigorating other aspects of healthcare reform? Or will they turn further against the GOP, whose presidents have packed the conservative wing of the court?
Or what if gas prices rise higher than $5 per gallon and the economy stalls due to high oil prices? Any one of a number of similar scenarios could pull voters' short attention spans away from birth control.
Republicans have made a host of policy missteps while trying to politick this issue. They enlisted the help of the Catholic hierarchy to try to turn access to birth control on its head and portray it instead as an encroachment on religious freedom. GOP leaders lost credibility and voter support in the process.
But Democrats cannot just rely on Republican missteps to carry them to victory in November. They must devise a strategy that keeps the issue in the news and on women's minds without simultaneously pounding it into the ground. Republicans handed them a golden egg. Now Democrats must carefully carry it across the victory line intact, in November.
Bonnie Erbe is host of PBS' "To the Contrary with Bonnie Erbe" and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.