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Women Powered a Blue Wave in 2018... Have the Tables Turned?

Women vote.
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Some women who abandoned the GOP during Donald Trump’s presidency have gravitated back toward Republican nominees.

(CNN) — Republicans are bullish that this could the year of the "security mom" -- the moment when women who abandoned the GOP during Donald Trump's presidency gravitate back toward Republican nominees who are speaking to their worries about the economic and physical security of their families.

But Democrats hope the tide will turn back in their favor in this final election week if undecided female voters -- particularly those just beginning to research their candidates -- conclude that the Republican Party has no substantive plans to address the bite of inflation and that the party's stance on abortion is too extreme following the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Neither side can predict the outcome on November 8, but strategists from both parties are laser-focused on winning over those female swing voters who could once again be the determining factor in deciding control of the US House and Senate, as well as many key governor's races.

In 2018, suburban and college-educated women rebuked Trump and helped power the so-called blue wave that saw more than 100 women elected to the US House (most of them Democrats).

The gender gap that year was enormous, according to exit polls, with 59% of women supporting Democrats and 40% backing Republicans. It reflected the energy of the women's marches that followed Trump's 2016 victory, the anger churning throughout the #MeToo movement and Democratic messaging that the GOP would jeopardize access to health care after the party had repeatedly attempted to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Now the tables appear to have turned. The crush of inflation and the volatility of gas prices -- and the fact that Trump is no longer in the White House -- have created a far more favorable climate for the GOP to win over female voters.

In interviews with voters in battleground states, the lingering frustrations about the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, compounded by economic worries, have clearly created a yearning for change among some women that could punish the party in power. Republicans are seeking a net gain of five seats to win control of the House and a net gain of just one seat to flip the evenly divided Senate.

Abortion or the economy?

While abortion is a key issue that helped Democrats close what had initially appeared to be a yawning enthusiasm gap with Republicans, many GOP strategists have argued in interviews that Democrats overplayed their hand by focusing too much on abortion rights in their ads when voters were more focused on the economic pain they were feeling from inflation.

Democrats insist that the fact that they have been driving a dual message -- about abortion and the economy -- often gets overlooked. But Danielle Alvarez, communications director for the Republican National Committee, predicted that the opposing party's relentless focus on abortion would prove to be a mistake.

"Democrats believe women only vote from the waist down and wake up every day thinking about abortion. The reality is that Democrats miscalculated and are out of touch, because women voters are whole voters who care about the economy, public safety, and education," she said.

The challenge for Democrats was reflected in a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS that showed likely voters in competitive districts leaning toward Republicans. The survey showed women expressing less support for Democrats than they have in recent elections. A CNN Poll among registered voters in early October 2018 found that 59% of women backed Democratic nominees in their district; compared with 53% in CNN's recent September-October poll.

Democrats are also seeing a backslide in enthusiasm compared with the 2018 election. Among registered voters in CNN's September-October poll: 27% of Democratic women said they were extremely enthusiastic (which is fairly similar to the 31% of Republican women who said the same), and about 11% of independent women voiced that level of enthusiasm.

Those numbers are a clear contrast to CNN's poll at the beginning of October 2018 when 41% of Democratic women said they were extremely enthusiastic about casting ballots, compared with 35% of Republican women -- and 29% of independent women.

The voting bloc known as 'security moms' was a term first coined in the 2004 presidential election, when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were out on the campaign trail accusing Democrats of not being prepared to handle the threat of terrorism.

This time, the mix of issues that are most top of mind for many female voters -- inflation and economic uncertainty, as well as the uptick in crime in some cities -- are issues that favor Republicans, according to GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. Abortion is clear exception, but polls have repeatedly shown that it is not the top issue for most voters, despite the millions of dollars of Democratic spending on ads casting GOP candidates as a threat to abortion access.

"It's almost as though this is the return of the 'security mom,' except that instead of the threat being radical terrorism, it's threats from at home," said Soltis Anderson. Female voters who might not otherwise have been as interested in voting for the GOP, she said, are giving Republicans a second look because of "that palpable sense of concern and fear about both economic and physical security."

Pandemic woes

The economic worries that many women are feeling as they preside over their household budgets follow nearly three years during which they disproportionately shouldered the burdens created by the pandemic -- including school closures and constant child care scrambles.

An early sign of the potency of those issues came in the 2021 governor's race in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully harnessed the exhaustion and frustration that many parents were feeling to win in a state that Joe Biden had carried by double digits a year earlier.

More recently, Republicans have tried to blame Democratic lawmakers for lengthy Covid-19 school closures, linking those decisions to the worrisome gaps that have emerged in student achievement.

Democrats believe that anger over the Supreme Court's decision that eliminated federal abortion rights protections will ultimately drive many female voters, particularly younger voters, to the polls.

But Democratic candidates have often struggled to strike the right tone on the economic pain that voters are feeling as they point to the myriad ways in which their party attempted to help voters during the pandemic with stimulus funding, aid to keep families in their homes and a bipartisan infrastructure package to repair roads and bridges across the country.

As Biden and some Democratic nominees have touted legislative wins like the health care, tax and climate law enacted this summer -- which Democrats framed as the Inflation Reduction Act -- many voters have told CNN that they are not feeling the effects of those legislative victories in Washington.

Democrats have increasingly pivoted to make economic concerns a bigger part of their message. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for example, released an ad this week directly acknowledging the problems.

"Look, I can't solve the inflation problem, but we're doing things right now to help," she says in the ad, noting the work she has done to lower child care costs and expand health care coverage to more Michiganders. "You work hard to keep up. I'm working to make it a little easier."

Many female voters may make up their minds in this final week of the election. Christine Matthews, a pollster who closely studies the behavior of female voters and who has done work for candidates such as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, pointed to recent polling that suggests a surprising number of older female voters are still undecided.

Many women in focus groups, said Matthews, say they still need to research their candidates -- and if they conclude that the GOP nominee in their House race is too extreme on abortion, "that may be a deal breaker for them."

Matthews is particularly interested in watching how Hispanic women vote this year because they are also "conflicted on some issues -- whether it's the economy and inflation or abortion and climate change."

Though Matthews believes that the GOP will take control of the House, there is still considerable uncertainty about the Senate, governor's races and what the size of the GOP House majority might be.

"Women across the board, I think, are all still trying to make up their minds," she said. "And I don't think anybody knows which way it's going to go."

This headline has been updated.

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Maeve Reston