Steve Israel and the House Dems bet on a female backlash against the Republican ‘war’

Yvette Clarke at a union event. (twu, via flickr)
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Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recognizes a political opportunity when he sees one, even when it's born of unfortunate circumstances. 

Describing the mood yesterday at a big Midtown fund-raiser for female Democratic congressional candidates, Israel said, "It's bittersweet."

"People are excited, because we have so many high-profile and quality candidates who are women, but they're also angry that we have to fight extreme Republican ideologies that are more focused on shutting down Planned Parenthood throughout America than creating jobs in America," he said.

He was referring to the House Republicans' ongoing threat to de-fund Planned Parenthood, which came to a head last April, when the House majority briefly threatened to shut down the government over the issue. He also happened to be speaking shortly after an attack by Rush Limbaugh on a Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown Law student who wanted to testify before Congress in favor of contraception coverage by religious-affiliated institutions. Both incidents have translated into support for Democrats, fueling the contention that Republicans and their most vocal conservative supporters are waging a "war on women."

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On Feb. 17, when a Republican hearing on President Obama's contraception compromise conspicuously lacked women on its first panel, Israel said more than 400,000 people visited the DCCC website, which "shattered all records." Since then, nearly half a million have signed an online petition opposing the G.O.P.'s "war"—the organization's most successful petition ever—and, perhaps most importantly, the DCCC has collected $1.55 million dollars in what Israel characterized as "small grassroots donations."

"The Republicans may have tried to slam the door shut to women in their hearings, but their continued extremism is opening the doors to a Democratic majority in Congress," he said.

That's his hope, at least, as he seeks to overturn the Republicans' current 242-192 majority.

Yesterday, hundreds of well-heeled supporters had shown up at the Palace Hotel for a fund-raiser benefiting the party's star women candidates from around the country, which doubled as a celebration of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's 25 years in the House. Several hundred copies of Pelosi's book, Know Your Power, were stacked on a table at the front, and the gift bags were a colorful Diane von Furstenberg design, with "Pelosi" scrawled in cursive above the number "25" inside a heart.

Between the panel discussions and the lunch reception, members of New York's delegation milled around with some of the party's most generous guests, and everyone was eager to talk about the new women candidates.

Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn, who said she had brought 50 women of color to the event, was particularly excited about Val Demings, an African-American woman who was the first woman to serve as police chief of Orlando, and who is running against a freshman Republican incumbent, Dan Webster.

Asked how the contraception controversy might affect races like Deming's, Clarke said, "The ability to plan families is something that women have enjoyed for generations now, so it's such a rollback and an overreach that many of the women candidates who are facing really hard opposition out there will have a galvanzing issue to work with."

Some Democratic challengers are already testing that proposition.

"I think it's going to be very significant," said Kathy Boockvar, a Pennsylvania attorney who is challenging a Republican incumbent in eastern Pennsylvania, and was one of the morning's beneficiaries.

Boockvar said she had received hundreds of responses to the emails her campaign had sent on the theme of Republican and conservative positions on women and women's rights, including one on Friday that highlighted Rush Limbaugh's comments.

"This is an issue that's really touching women," she said.

Israel said the party was counting on large numbers of women voters who voted for Republicans in 2010 to return to the fold this year.

"There's no question," Israel said. "We lost the House in 2010 when we lost nine million independent voters, many of them women. They were with us in 2006 and with us in 2008; we lost them in 2010. If we get them back in 2012, we win the majority."

And Democrats are hoping that the support for the president's contraception compromise will trump some lingering misgivings about the health care bill as a whole, and that women candidates will be particularly adept in framing the issue as one of women's health.

As it currently stands, there are only five women of the 18 listed as top targets on the DCCC's "Red to Blue" list, but Israel suggested that number was likely to increase.

"The Red to Blue list is evolving," he said. "All told we have 48 strong diverse and dynamic candidates who are women and they will lead the way back to a Democratic majority."

Israel said he had just come from spending a few days with Demings in Florida, and that Pelosi had recently done some events for the DCCC in Illinois, where the organization is promoting Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war vet running against the outspoken Republican freshamn Joe Walsh. 

But Democrats also have to play defense in some races where Republicans are hoping the contraception issue cuts both ways. In Western New York, the National Republican Campaign Committee has been aggressively pushing a video of Hochul at a recent town hall, when a voter caught her unprepared for a question about which section of the Constitution allows for the president's compromise on contraception.

"Despite Steve Israel's misleading fantasyland rhetoric, Democrats across the country are dealing with the fallout of supporting President Obama's big-government takeover of healthcare which Americans are rejecting," said NRCC spokesman Nathaniel Sillin, in an email. "Common sense folks rejection of this latest mandate  - like we saw in Kathy Hochul's district - prove that on this issue of religious freedom and the Constitution - Democrats are at odds with voters." 

Israel said he was mystified at the Republicans' decision to engage so forcefully on the issue.

"Honestly, if I thought that this were kind of a tactical or strategic decision, then I might be able to understand it," he said. "But it's not. These people are ideological extremists. They really believe what they're saying. They really believe that women have no place at a hearing on women's issues. That's what scares me. They believe this stuff."