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Jack Conway, U.S. Democratic Senate candidate. (Miranda Pederson/The Associated Press/Miranda Pederson/The Associated Press)
Jack Conway, U.S. Democratic Senate candidate. (Miranda Pederson/The Associated Press/Miranda Pederson/The Associated Press)

Democrats' message to women appears to be working Add to ...

Rand Paul's Democratic opponent has put out a TV ad that asks why the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky once tied a woman up.

The Democrat running against GOP Senate hopeful Ken Buck has a commercial questioning whether Coloradans are "ready to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest."

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In Pennsylvania's Senate race, Pat Toomey's Democratic foe has a TV spot implying the GOP rival would seek to punish abortion doctors.

For an election that was supposed to be all about the economy, the outcome of several key Senate races in the Nov. 2 midterm vote could end up hinging on topics Republicans are reluctant to talk about this year.

Democrats are resorting to a traditional wedge issue in a bid to protect what's left of their party's fast evaporating edge among women. The aim is to get female voters thinking about something other than the economy. And there's evidence it's working.

In the past week, new polls have shown Mr. Toomey and Mr. Buck both losing the high single-digit leads they had long maintained over their Democratic rivals. Both those races are now dead heats.

There have been no public polls in Kentucky since Democrat Jack Conway released his latest ad against his GOP rival, but the TV spot has dominated debate between candidates for the past 10 days and pushed Mr. Paul off his all-economic message. That alone makes it a success.

The Kentucky ad refers to an alleged college hazing incident, three decades ago, involving Mr. Paul. While not an attack on the anti-abortion candidate's social conservatism, it does seek to raise questions about Mr. Paul's attitudes toward women.

"Every bit of polling data shows that, whether it's fair or unfair, voters believe the response of the Democratic Congress and President to the economy has not worked," Washington pollster Scott Rasmussen, president and CEO of Rasmussen Reports, explained in an interview. "So, Democrats want to talk about anything but the economy ... It's better for their candidates to talk about cultural issues that might fire up the Democratic base."

The tactic is also being used by Democratic candidates in Nevada and California. Together with Pennsylvania and Colorado, they are among the states Republicans had hoped to pick up in order to take control of the Senate. Those hopes appear to be receding as Democrats successfully hone in on their rivals' social conservatism to plant doubts among swing voters.

The tagline for Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet's ad against his opponent says it all: "Ken Buck. The more you hear, the more you wonder."

Democrats used to be able to count on a solid double-digit lead among female voters. But a recent Politico/George Washington University poll confirmed that women voters are almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Worse still for Democrats, Republican women are far more enthusiastic about voting this year, while the GOP advantage among male voters has widened to 15 percentage points. The only way Democrats can eke out victory in close races may be to persuade women who have strayed or turned apathetic that their rights may be threatened by a Republican win.

"The question for voters has been whether they are going to forego their position on [abortion]in an election cycle in which the economy and jobs matter more to them," noted Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. "These Democratic ads might be more of a tactic to promote women voters' mobilization."

Attempts to portray Republican Senate candidates as a threat to women's reproductive rights have had little impact on races in Florida and New Hampshire, where staunchly anti-abortion candidates Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte, respectively, have built up seemingly insurmountable leads.

But in Colorado, where Mr. Buck once proudly wore his anti-abortion views on his sleeve, he is distancing himself from them. For instance, he has backed off his support for a proposed amendment to the state constitution defining "personhood" as beginning at the moment of conception.

The abortion issue, however, might not be the only reason Mr. Buck has seen his lead in the polls evaporate in recent days. In a debate last week, for instance, he called homosexuality a choice and likened it to alcoholism.

"Buck has made some comments that have gotten him in trouble," Mr. Rasmussen offered. "And Colorado is a state where Democrats have invested heavily in the last few election cycles to build a good organization."

And in case that's not enough, Democrats are hoping wedge politics works for them, too.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

 

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