Elections have consequences, and those consequences are most acutely felt, it seems, in closely contested elections.
In at least four hot races across the nation, Republican candidates have adopted a new approach to birth control: It should be available over the counter. “More rights, more freedom,” Republican Cory Gardner says in a new TV ad airing in Colorado, where he is locked in a tight race with first-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall.
The strategy is particularly notable because some of the candidates have in the past not exactly been supportive of ready access to birth control.
Gardner has been slapped around for months by Udall and his allies for his past support of “personhood" ballot measures that would have legally established life as beginning at the point of conception. Only this year, when he entered the Senate race, did Gardner renounce the measures, saying that he had belatedly learned that they could restrict some forms of birth control.
Republican Thom Tillis, running against first-term Democrat Kay Hagan for a Senate seat in North Carolina, had previously said that it was within the state’s rights to ban birth control altogether -- although he would not say whether he supported such a move. Still, in a debate on Wednesday night, he declared that birth control pills should be available over the counter.
“First, I believe contraception should be available -- and probably more broadly than it is today,” said Tillis, the speaker of the state House, adding that “I think over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription. If you do those kinds of things, you will actually increase the access and reduce the barriers for having more options for women for contraception.”
Previously coming to the same conclusion were Republican Senate candidates Ed Gillespie in Virginia, who made his announcement in a July debate with Democrat Mark Warner, and Mike McFadden, seeking the Senate seat now held by Al Franken in Minnesota.
The moves, which bear the strong scent of election-year choreography, appear intended to blunt criticisms from Democrats that the GOP is engaged in a war on women, as demonstrated by party efforts to, among other things, strip contraceptive coverage from Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood facilities that offer birth control as part of their services.
Women, not incidentally, are among the most targeted voter groups in the fall midterm elections -- particularly single women, many of whom who have more than a passing familiarity with birth control. (Voting by single women typically drops off in non-presidential years; in the last midterm races in 2010, 22 million fewer unmarried women voted than in 2008 even though the number registered is growing, according to a study by the Voter Participation Center and Lake Research Partners.)
Nationally and in contested states, women have strongly gravitated to Democratic candidates, so their dropoff bodes ill for a party already struggling under an unpopular president and a Republican cast to the states in play this year.
For the moment, the GOP candidates’ newly espoused views on contraceptives make them strange bedfellows with women’s groups that have in the past advocated over-the-counter release of birth control measures and have fought -- against Republicans -- for the freer release of emergency contraceptives.
Planned Parenthood, for one, was unwilling to play ball.
"If Thom Tillis and others were serious about expanding access to birth control, they wouldn’t be trying to repeal the no-co-pay birth control benefit or cut women off from Planned Parenthood’s preventive health services. This is simply a cynical political attempt to whitewash his terrible record and agenda for women's health,” Melissa Reed, a spokeswoman for the Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund, said in a statement released after the North Carolina debate.
Reed noted the convergence of support for over-the-counter birth control pills by the Republican candidates and Planned Parenthood.
“At the same time, it is important that voters know the truth about these claims by politicians running for office: They are empty gestures. In a desperate attempt to appeal to women voters, Thom Tillis is clearly following in the footsteps of other out of touch candidates like Cory Gardner in Colorado and Ed Gillespie in Virginia,” she said.
As Reed underscored, Obamacare has changed the terms of the debate. Under the healthcare law, contraceptives are to be available without a co-pay. If the medication becomes available over the counter, most will not be covered by health insurance, meaning that drugs that have become more affordable would suddenly be less so.
That is not the argument being forwarded by the GOP candidates. In his ad, Colorado’s Gardner asserts that “the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription -- cheaper and easier, for you.”
The congressman cast incumbent Udall as someone who “wants to keep government bureaucrats between you and your healthcare plan. That means more politics and more profits for drug companies.”
That represents a turn on its head of the argument that Democrats have long made -- that Obamacare was needed to protect access to services such as contraceptives, which the administration has waged a legal battle to extend in cases brought by organizations asserting religious rights to exclude birth control coverage.
Those organizations have been backed by Republicans, who have cast dozens of votes to repeal the president’s signature domestic policy achievement. But for four candidates, at least, the contraceptive component appears to have been brushed off the table, at least until November.
For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker