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Could National Security Make 2016 Tougher for Women Candidates?

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who faces one of the toughest reelection fights this year,  released a digital ad Monday attacking three Republican challengers for their support of abortion bans.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who faces one of the toughest reelection fights this year,  released a digital ad Monday attacking three Republican challengers for their support of abortion bans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As national security becomes a bigger issue in the wake of the attacks in Paris, some Democratic strategists worry the issue could cause troubles for their Senate candidates in 2016 — and women candidates in particular.  

Polling shows voters generally view Republicans stronger on national security issues than Democrats. But some Democratic strategists and pollsters add the issue is especially challenging for women, who do better at the ballot box when the economy and social issues are at the top of voters’ minds.  

“Voters do look at gender,” said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster. “Women do better when people are focused on domestic issues [rather] than foreign policy, on policies that require empathy and being in touch rather than toughness. So terrorism is tough for women and tough for Democrats.”  

More than a half-dozen Democratic Senate candidates this cycle are women, some of whom are considered the top recruit in their respective race. And these female candidates’ successes will be essential to whether Democrats can net the five seats necessary to take control of the Senate.  

Recognizing their disadvantage when the debate is centered on national security, a handful of top female Democratic Senate recruits have come out with tougher stances on fighting terrorism than those of President Barack Obama and his administration.  

That was manifested this week, when the debate turned to whether the United States should accept refugees from Syria — the breeding ground for ISIS, the terrorist group that carried out this weekend’s attacks. Terrorism experts say at least one of the attackers had entered Europe with the influx of refugees from Syria.  

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, the likely Democratic nominee in the Granite State’s Senate contest, said the federal government should stop accepting Syrian refugees until they can ensure the vetting process for accepting refugees is “as strong as possible. ”  

Catherine Cortez Masto, the likely Democratic nominee in Nevada, and Katie McGinty, a Democrat running for Senate in Pennsylvania, echoed similar
sentiments , but stopped short of calling for a halt in allowing refugees to enter the country.  

To be sure, some experts say that as more women run for office and assume leadership roles in areas related to foreign policy, the gender gap over national security has diminished.  

Experts pointed to women including Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, one of the first female combat veterans in Congress, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chaired the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee as people who have changed public perception on whether women can be tough on terrorism in particular.  

They also pointed to Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the top Democratic Senate recruit in Illinois, a veteran who lost both legs in a helicopter crash when she was deployed in Iraq, as a female candidate uniquely qualified to address national security issues on the trail.  

“We’ve reached a point in time where partisanship trumps virtually everything else in terms of cuing voters as to how they should assess candidates,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University who studies women in politics. “Whether you have a D or an R next to your name is more important than whether you have a Y chromosome.”  

But following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, research found female candidates at a disadvantage to male candidates when it came to defense, terrorism and toughness, according to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a group that tries to bolster the role of women in politics.  

“Few voters believed women on these topics,” said Erin Souza-Rezendes, communications director for the foundation.  

Souza-Rezendes added that still can manifest in the fact that voters also expect women to prove their qualifications to voters more than they do for men.  

“Voters hold women to a higher standard in general, and women have to do more to prove their qualifications to voters,” Souza-Rezendes said. “This includes showing expertise on non-traditional issues in order to establish credibility and qualifications.”  


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