In Two-Woman Senate Race, Women’s Health Becomes Key Issue to Sway Voters

As Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan battle it out for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, women’s health becomes the issue of the week.

Hassan’s campaign released three new web ads on Monday morning attacking Ayotte for voting six times to defund Planned Parenthood.

Later that day, Ayotte’s campaign released its own ads, which do not attack Hassan or even mention her at all. The ads show her talking about the bills she introduced in Congress to allow the Food and Drug Administration to approve over-the-counter contraception, to end pregnancy discrimination and provide better access to mammograms.

Ayotte has made access to mammograms a central part of her health care and women’s health plan. She visited Gamma Medica in Salem on Monday to learn more about breast cancer detection and discuss her bipartisan efforts to protect access to mammograms.

During her visit, she talked about a recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that said mammograms for women age 40 to 49 are no longer necessary and that women over age 50 should have mammograms only every other year. In Congress, they put a hold on the USPSTF recommendation for two years to allow for more research to be done.

“But I’m going to fight this because I think it’s wrong,” Ayotte said in a town hall-style meeting with Gamma Medica employees. “Every other year is not enough. I know a lot of women, including my hairdresser, and if she wasn’t diagnosed early, she wouldn’t be here.”

Hassan mentions cancer screenings in her health care plan on her campaign website, but she hasn’t focused on it as much during the campaign. Instead, she’s on the offensive, slamming Ayotte for voting to defund Planned Parenthood.

“I will always stand up for a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and control her own destiny,” Hassan said at a roundtable discussion in Portsmouth on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, throughout her time in Washington, Senator Kelly Ayotte has fought to block women’s access to critical health services, including voting six times to defund Planned Parenthood. It is critical that women have access to the primary health care services that organizations like Planned Parenthood provide, and I will continue to fight to ensure that women can safely and affordably access health care.”

It’s not unusual to see a Democrat go on the offensive with women’s health, said Nichole Bauer, professor of political science at the University of Alabama, who has completed several research studies on gender and campaigning.

“This is a very standard way that Democrats frame women’s issues,” she said in an interview with NH Journal. “Traditionally, Democrats are perceived to be stronger on issues related to women’s health care, including access to care and reproductive rights. But, health care and women’s reproductive rights are also thought of as issues that female candidates are strong on as well. So, you have this really unique dynamic where both candidates…can make claims on women’s issues. The combination of gender and party gives Hassan a little more flexibility to go on the offensive on this issue — voters are more likely to see her as a stronger advocate of these issues based on both her party and gender.”

Karen O’Connor, professor of political science at American University and founder of the Women & Politics Institute, agreed that Democrats have an edge on women’s health and by focusing on it, they could drive turnout at the polls.

“With the looming presidential race and the direction of the Supreme Court on the line, choice becomes an even more important issue,” she said in an interview with NH Journal. “Given the polls, if I was Hassan, I’d batter away at Ayotte.”

Ayotte did vote to defund Planned Parenthood in some bills, but some of the six votes that Hassan points to were procedural and did not offer a clean up-or-down funding decision.

The incumbent Republican senator was also a vocal advocate about not shutting the government down in 2015 when a temporary government spending bill sought to block federal funds for Planned Parenthood. Although at the time, she supported defunding the organization after the controversial videos were released showing Planned Parenthood reportedly profiting off of abortions, her office said she would rather see those funds be directed toward other community health centers for low-income women.

“Ayotte’s partisanship constrains the set of women’s issues she can credibly advocate for while in office, and what she can make credible claims about on the campaign trail. Issues like reproductive rights and funding Planned Parenthood clinics are very partisan issues that Republicans do not typically support,” Bauer said. “Republicans tend to talk about women’s health when their Democratic opponents, though not always female Democratic opponents, bring up these issues. Focusing on mammogram access offers her a way to talk about a more neutral and less partisan women’s health issue. The ultimate goal for Ayotte in talking about these issues is to, of course, swing some of the women’s vote her way.”

While elections with two female candidates are becoming more common, they are still relatively rare across the country. Measuring “success” with women’s rights is complicated. Hassan’s campaign is pushing the narrative that Ayotte’s record on defunding Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights are the pinnacle parts of women’s health. Ayotte can focus on women’s health while highlighting bills or pieces of legislation she introduced while in office.

Ayotte touts that she introduced legislation to make over-the-counter birth control available for women. But Democrats call it a “sham bill” saying that it actually hurts women by making birth control more expensive. The bill was introduced in 2015 and it has not left committee yet. Bauer said candidates like Ayotte can use those bills she introduced to her advantage on the campaign trail.

“Legislators introduce bills all the time that they know will not pass out of a committee. They do this for protection on the campaign trail. A legislator, during reelection, can say that they introduced ‘X’ number of bills addressing women’s health. It’s a way of posturing,” Bauer said. “However, the legislative process is complex and cumbersome, and few bills make it into law. Most of the public does not understand this process, and the political intricacies behind it. So, candidates take advantage of this in their campaign messages.”

“A candidate, like Ayotte, can say that she introduced so many bills about a woman’s health, but can blame the political process or Congress for their failure to become law. And, people will accept this explanation because Congress is not held in high esteem as an institution. But, her opponent, Hassan, can also say that Ayotte voted against so many bills about women’s health — even if these votes were complicated. There is no way for Ayotte to explain these intricacies without sounding like she is flip-flopping or pandering,” she said.

Hassan’s campaign also says Ayotte voted in 2011 to cut all of the funding to the Title X Family Planning Program, which serves individuals across the country for breast and cervical cancer screenings, among other preventative health care.

When looking at the bill that she voted on to cut this funding, it was part of a larger spending bill, originally meant to be a disaster relief appropriations bill after Hurricane Sandy. It can be hard to say a candidate is against women’s health, when sometimes it can be wrapped up in a larger issue.

“For other voters, women’s health is a broad category and figuring out which candidates align with their positions will depend on which women’s health issues they care about,” Bauer said. “Is it about reproductive rights, children’s health care, mammogram access  or something else? Some voters, will be completely turned off by the back and forth between the two candidates, and may not place a high priority on women’s health as a major campaign issue and will most likely pay attention to other political issues.”

Bauer said the New Hampshire Senate race is a unique one, especially since women’s health has become an important campaign issue.

“Races with two female candidates, while becoming more common, are still rare. But, the extent to which women’s health has become a major campaign issue is important. It highlights the importance of securing female voters in the state. It is generally assumed that women will vote Democratic, but New Hampshire is a bit different,” she said. “Often, races with two female candidates tend to focus on non-women’s issues, like the economy, because the two candidates are often assumed to have similar positions on women’s health care. The fact that these two candidates have elevated these issues is unique, and seeing how these issues play out — especially how women vote in the election — will be interesting to follow.”

Author: Kyle Plantz

Kyle Plantz is a reporter with NH Journal.

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