MANCHESTER N.H./WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen walked into a roomful of largely Democratic New Hampshire women voters with a simple pitch: She would be more focused on their issues than her challenger, Scott Brown, the former Republican U.S. senator for Massachusetts.
“We need to make sure that women and families understand what the choice here is because this is a close race,” Shaheen told supporters after collecting the endorsement of the state chapter of abortion rights activist group NARAL.
Shaheen is one of the three Democratic incumbent female U.S. senators up for re-election in November. Republicans consider all three seats vulnerable as they look to take a majority in the Senate, which Democrats currently control by a margin of 53-45, with two independents.
To fire up core supporters and attract independent women voters, Shaheen and her North Carolina counterpart, Senator Kay Hagan, have focused much of their campaigning on protecting access to abortion, as well as women’s health generally, issues they hope can offset their opponents’ focus on unpopular Democratic President Barack Obama.
The third female Democratic incumbent, Senator Mary Landrieu, has sought to avoid the issue in her re-election bid in conservative Louisiana.
Democrats’ strategy to seize on what was termed a “war on women” by Republicans was particularly effective in 2012. Comments such as one by former Missouri Representative Todd Akin that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely became pregnant helped Democrats win the women’s vote by wide margins.
“Women voters are the most important component going into the final few weeks of this campaign,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm’s College.
“There are some issues which will get a voter into their car in the middle of a blizzard,” he said. “Reproductive issues, Second Amendment issues will traditionally do that.”
Shaheen’s plea for support came at an event hosted by the NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC, where activists expressed alarm over New Hampshire Republicans’ adoption of a “personhood” measure in their platform, calling for abortion to be outlawed.
Brown, who served as a senator from Massachusetts from 2010 to 2013, and lost his 2012 re-election bid, was quick to distance himself from that New Hampshire platform.
Brown says decisions on abortion are “best made between a woman and her doctor.”
Even so, Shaheen supporters said they objected to Brown’s backing of a 2012 bill to allow employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage for birth control for religious reasons.
“As a Republican woman, the choice is easy to support Senator Shaheen,” said Elizabeth Hager, a NARAL board member from Concord, New Hampshire.
Shaheen and Hagan were both elected in 2008, when heavy turnout by Democratic voters helped Obama become the country’s first black president.
Both received strong support from female voters. Shaheen captured 60 percent of women’s votes in New Hampshire, while North Carolina’s Hagan won the support of 55 percent of women.
Polls show a similar gap heading into November’s election.
A recent poll on the New Hampshire matchup by American Research Group found Shaheen with the support of 53 percent of 600 likely voters, ahead of Brown’s 43 percent. Among women, Shaheen’s lead widened to 59 percent to 38 percent.
In North Carolina, a recent CNN poll found Hagan leading state House Speaker Thom Tillis by 46 percent to 43 percent among 595 likely voters, with her lead extending to 49 percent to 40 percent among women.
Hagan’s campaign and women’s groups have criticized Tillis for cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and backing new abortion restrictions, while saying he supported making some forms of birth control available without a prescription, something that Hagan supporters called an empty gesture.
“Women are a lot smarter than Republicans give them credit for,” said Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a national organization that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women candidates.
Emily’s List, through its independent expenditure arm “Women Vote,” is spending $3 million against Tillis in North Carolina and also considers New Hampshire one of its top priorities, McIntosh said.
In a sign of the importance of the women’s vote to both parties, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a TV ad last week featuring women who said Hagan was not an effective senator.
“Women voters are concerned about jobs, and they’re concerned about national security,” Tillis campaign spokeswoman Meghan Burris said.
But women’s groups say Republicans who ignore the other key issues women care about do so at their own peril.
“Women’s access to healthcare and economic opportunity are the No. 1 motivators for swing voters this year,” McIntosh said. “The idea that women should be paid fairly and have access to her own health care decisions is not a small factor.”
Reporting by Scott Malone and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Leslie Adler