LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Three of the four men running in the Republican primary race for governor on Tuesday gathered for a debate at Colorado Christian University meant to showcase policy proposals and life experience that would make them attractive candidates to Colorado women.
But the three candidates — former Congressman Bob Beauprez, former state Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp and Secretary of State Scott Gessler — had no specific policy proposals regarding women’s issues and barely mentioned women, a voting bloc that has come to decide statewide elections over the years and one that increasingly has turned away from the Republican Party.
The candidates at the debate are running behind former Congressman and conservative firebrand Tom Tancredo, who has declined to debate in the primary race. The three have struggled to gain traction and raise money, but at the debate they were polished. They rolled out phrases fine-tuned on the stump about slashing fees, lowering taxes, standing up to Washington and battling big government. They jabbed at incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper as unable or unwilling to trim regulations and truly “open the state for business.”
Yet the setting served mainly to highlight the way the party and its candidates will continue to struggle.
The event was titled “Women and Colorado’s Future.” But in the hour and a half the event ran — commercial breaks featured “swinging 1960s” theme music for the “Dating Game” television show — the candidates treated the debate as if there were no particular theme they wre expected to address.
Moderator John Andrews, a former state senate president and the director of the university’s conservative Centennial Institute, and four conservative women panelists asked few of the kinds of questions that will dominate debate in the general election.
There was nothing of note said about the heated subject of women’s health — about efforts in Washington and state capitols around the country including in Denver to shutter reproductive health and abortion clinics, to defund Planned Parenthood, to restrict access to contraception at state clinics, about the hardline anti-abortion “personhood” proposal likely to land on Colorado voter ballots this year — nothing on domestic violence policies and protections, university campus sexual harassment and assault, equal opportunities at school and in the workplace, discriminatory insurance policies, affordable day care, or even in any depth gender disparities in pay — the subject this week of national headlines after the firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.
Colorado Christian University faculty member and occasional conservative talk radio host Krista Kafer took issue with the way politics has turned recently on what she argued was a narrow, pandering, even crude, categorization of women’s political concerns. She said she resented “being appealed to below the waist” as a voter. “As if my vote could be bought with free contraception,” she said.
Debbie Brown, director of the Colorado Women’s Alliance, asked the men about proposals to grant greater regulatory control over oil-and-gas drilling that analysts say will tamp down the booming extraction industry. This is a women’s issue question, she said, because women care about jobs, too.
The question played to the approach taken by the three candidates to the theme of the debate. The way to serve women, they argued, was to serve the economy. To create jobs and boost opportunity.
Asked how they would appeal to women specifically, Gessler was perhaps most thoughtful. He talked about “a tone and tenor” that has emerged in Republican politics that turns off women and that party candidates should recognize.
“In recent years, the Republican Party has sometimes seemed disrespectful or harsh. We can’t come off as judgmental,” he said.
Gessler also later said he would address the inevitable “war on women” attacks that would be leveled against Republicans by meeting them head on.
“We have to point out the hypocrisy… that [Democratic U.S. Senator] Mark Udall and Hickenlooper pay the women on their staffs less, that the New York Times paid Jill Abramson less. We have to point out that women’s choices are narrowed mainly because opportunities have been narrowed by bad economic policy.”
Asked who they would name as a women in history they most respected (“other than your wife or your mother”) the candidates’ answers fell flat.
Beauprez talked about one of his bank employees. Kopp talked about a woman who supports his campaign. And Gessler said he admired Helen Keller and Susan B. Anthony, which had the ring of a school-room response but from a student who may not have done all the homework. He said Helen Keller overcame hardship but never played the victim. He didn’t mention that the progressive-era American icon worked to win expanded voter rights, that she was an ardent socialist, a staunch supporter of worker rights, a fervent pacifist and a champion of birth control.
The answer suggested the ideological bind at work in the effort to court the women’s vote. The voting record in Colorado demonstrates that most women don’t take the position championed by Kafer at the debate. They embrace the role policymakers can play in bettering their lives in gender specific, even biologically inflected, ways.
Indeed, the debate underlined the reluctance among the candidates and the questioners to recognize women as a category of people who in this country and in every other country in the world have been a secondary and often oppressed class of citizen, to acknowledge that women have had to fight for rights and that they have unequivocally benefited from government policies designed to expand their rights and protections. It’s a bind Republican politicians are struggling with around the country, where a key tenet of U.S. conservativism is that to recognize separate classes of people, in effect, is to create those classes and to undercut the agency of the individual.
In Hellen Keller’s day, women couldn’t vote. No amount of tax breaks or reduced fees on businesses would have granted them equal representation.
* Note: An earlier version reported that Krista Kafer said “below the belt.” She writes that she said “below the waist,” which makes sense.[ Top image, left to right, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, debate host Steve Kelley and former Congressman Bob Beauprez. ]