Conservatives Frustrated by GOP’s Drop in Working Women’s Votes

The following post by Danielle Paquette in the Washington Post appeared June 19, 2015:

The trend that worries conservative thinker Sabrina Schaeffer is this: Three elections ago, nearly half of all working mothers chose George W. Bush. In 2008, the share dropped to 40 percent for Sen. John McCain. By 2012, only about a third backed Mitt Romney.

But even more alarming to Schaeffer is that few, if any, of the current presidential candidates have made the needs of female breadwinners a centerpiece of their campaigns.

“For years now, Democrats have been saying: We are focused on women in the workplace,” said Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes conservative policies. “For whatever reason, Republicans keep ignoring these issues. It’s the absolute worst thing they can do. They need to understand, engage and offer better solutions. They can’t be afraid.”

Schaeffer is among a chorus of conservatives who have grown frustrated — and increasingly vocal — about the lack of proposals from GOP candidates that could help reverse this exodus of swing voters from the party.

These conservatives say Republicans have an opportunity to exploit new proposals in Washington that have been embraced by influential right-wing policymakers and economists.

But some Republican strategists say that many of the candidates are planning to wait until after the primary to take up such ideas, so as to not prematurely alienate social conservatives who think families are better off when one parent stays home. That has dismayed some in the party who view the matter as urgent, especially with Hillary Rodham Clinton looming as the likely Democratic nominee.

“Every parent who works has been through the day-care nightmare,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was the senior economic policy adviser to McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 election. “This has been underappreciated by Republican candidates in part and conservatives in general. They think this stuff is automatic.”

Although several of the Republican candidates have long supported expanding the child tax credit, some conservative women leaders say that idea may not be enough to compete with Democrats.

Right-leaning policymakers have been floating other proposals. An economist at the American Enterprise Institute has recommended allowing pregnant workers to claim part of their tax refund early to fund their maternity leave. A Heritage Foundation economist has proposed loosening labor regulations so parents can easily swap overtime pay for compensation days. Others are advocating for over-the-counter birth control.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) wants to reward companies with a 25-cent tax credit for every dollar spent on its employees’ family or medical leave.

“The public is watching,” Fischer told a gathering of conservative economists, pundits and strategists earlier this month. “If we leave this narrative to our friends on the left, we don’t stand a chance.”

Such ideas are emerging as the economic challenges facing working women and mothers are mounting.

Women financially support 40 percent of all households in the United States, the Pew Research Center recently found, compared with 11 percent in 1960. Out-of-pocket spending on child care has nearly doubled over the last 30 years, according to the Census Bureau. The average cost of infant care now exceeds the price of public college tuition in 31 states.

In Virginia, for example, a critical swing state, the average cost of full-time day care runs about $10,000 per year. The price swells in cities: Parents should expect to pay $22,000 annually in the District, according for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Only 13 percent of American workers, meanwhile, have access to paid family leave or time away from work to recover from a pregnancy and bond with a newborn, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“As a general matter, women are really busy,” said Kate O’Beirne, policy adviser to the Conservative Reform Network and former president of the National Review Institute. “They’re always juggling and prioritizing. You’ve got to get their attention by talking about concrete ways to help.”

So far, no Republican candidate seems to have done so, said Ainsley Stapleton, a 38-year-old accountant in Arlington, Va., who describes herself as a fiscal conservative. A mother of three young children, Stapleton said she spends about $2,000 each month on day care, a cost that nearly matches her mortgage payment.

“Republicans, on a federal level, don’t look too much at working women, period,” she said. “If someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio came up with a feasible plan to make child care cheaper, they’d win my vote.”

Working mothers were 12 percent of the 2012 electorate, according to a national exit poll by Edison Media Research. That share, which has remained steady since 2004, will likely grow, based on historic voting patterns — women typically outnumber men at the polls — and the changing work climate, analysts say.

Clinton is already cranking up the pressure on this front on the campaign trail, condemning the country’s lack of paid maternity leave, maternal wage gap and dearth of affordable day-care options. Strategists on both sides of the political spectrum soon expect her to unveil a policy agenda appealing to working mothers.