RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We are six months away from this year's midterm elections, and Democrats and Republicans are ramping up campaign messaging. Both parties agree women could hold the key to victory in November. And many of the most endangered incumbents and high-profile challengers are also women.
So this morning, we're going to talk about how the parties are targeting their message to women in new ways. This week, NPR's political team is diving into the issue with a series called She Votes. We're joined now by two of the reporters working on the project, White House correspondent Tamara Keith and congressional reporter Elsa Chang. Welcome to the program, you two.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thanks.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So Tam and Elsa, women have long voted in greater numbers than men, and we have heard about the importance of female voters in elections in the recent past. So what is it about this election cycle that has put so much focus, including your own, on both women voters and women candidates?
KEITH: In 2012, women are the reason that President Obama beat Mitt Romney. He won 55% of the women's vote. And President Obama especially did well with unmarried women. But unmarried women just don't turn out in midterm elections in the same way that they do in the general election.
So for Democrats, this cycle is all about trying to convince these unmarried women to show up at the polls. For Republicans, who do better with older and married women, it's about turning out their voters in greater numbers than the Democrats are able to turn out theirs.
CHANG: And the place where that dynamic is most important this year is the U.S. Senate. Women could be the ones who determine whether the Democrats hang onto their majority. It's 55-to-45 in the chamber. And that majority could tip, depending on how Democratic women running in red states perform this fall. For example, we've got incumbents Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Then there's Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, who's running for the open seat in Georgia. And then there's Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. She's this 35-year-old current Secretary of State, young, fresh face, who's taking on Mitch McConnell, the longtime minority leader in the Senate. And each of these women is a really viable candidate right now. And that is why there is so much Democratic Party apparatus set up to now push these women hard in the coming months.
MARTIN: So talk to me also about what that means, the apparatus, and how is it focused on women?
CHANG: Well, for starters, money. Lots and lots of money. One of the stories I'm doing for the series is how fundraising by women that is women asking for money and women giving money, how that's dramatically evolved over the last 30 years. Democrats figured out a way to do this much earlier than the Republicans, but Republicans are trying to make this a real priority now.
MARTIN: And the Democrats answer to this was EMILY's List, right?
MARTIN: How much has that group raised since it started off?
CHANG: Well, since its start in 1985, EMILY's List says it's raised about $390 million, which is pretty hefty. I mean, I talk to women who ran for office before there was even an EMILY's List, like Pat Schroeder from Colorado, who first ran for Congress in 1972. And she told me her average donation that year was $7.50, which just blew me away.
I mean, now women have become these powerhouse fundraisers. Like take a look at Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She's even started her own PAC to fundraise for other women. And so far, this election cycle, she's given away 1.74 million dollars. And the funny thing is she told me when she first started fundraising years ago, she really dreaded it.
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SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I was embarrassed to ask people for money. I thought, oh, this feels so embarrassing to ask them for large amounts of money, even. And at one point, something very simple occurred to me. It wasn't about me. It's not about whether I win or lose, it's whether the issues that I'm fighting for, whether we achieve them. And so when you begin to realize the money's not for you, it is so freeing.
CHANG: There are efforts on the Republican side to raise money for women. There's the Susan B. Anthony's List, Maggie's List, Republican Majority for Choice. But those groups still haven't seen the same momentum and volume of fundraising Democrats have.
MARTIN: But what are Republicans doing, then, to focus in on women voters? This is something, Tamara, you've looked at?
KEITH: Yes, I'm working on a story about the Republican effort to win women. Republicans do believe that they have a problem with women. There is a gender gap and it works against them. There's more of a debate about whether their problem is about the message or about their messaging.
Don't screw up like some of their candidates have in the past, and don't talk like cavemen, as one Republican consultant put it. But also that Republican candidates need to talk about what their platform means for women and what they can do for women. So they're working on messaging and tone and they're training candidates about how to speak to women about issues that women care about.
MARTIN: And are they looking and trying to recruit more female candidates?
KEITH: Absolutely. And this is both a Republican effort and on the Democratic side, they're also pushing hard to get more women to run. There's a lot of research that shows that women have to be asked. They don't just volunteer. Here's an example. I spoke to her recently, Monica Youngblood, a Republican member of the New Mexico House.
She had volunteered for political campaigns. She'd been interested in politics. But she never, ever thought of running herself. One day, she gets a call from one of the men she helped get elected. And he said...
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MONICA YOUNGBLOOD: It's your time. We need people like you in Santa Fe. We need a voice like yours, who's lived here, who's been through what you've been through. And I think that you need to really consider it. And I thought I was being punked, like MTV punked. And I was like, what is he talking about?
KEITH: She said she felt like she wasn't qualified. And she worried about what running would do to her family. And this is pretty common. Women have to be asked and then they have to be asked again and again.
MARTIN: And lastly, Tim, I understand you've been working on a social media project as part of the series. What's that about?
KEITH: We've been asking people to submit photos on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #shevotes. And what we're asking is what or who got them interested or engaged or active in politics? And we've gotten some really amazing responses. We've gotten pictures of bumper stickers, people decked out in campaign shirts going door-to-door for candidates. I've even posted some.
MARTIN: Oh, yeah?
KEITH: Yes, from when I was in student council.
KEITH: So the hashtag is #shevotes.
MARTIN: All right, #shevotes. That was White House correspondent Tamara Keith and our congressional reporter Elsa Chang giving us a preview of the new NPR series She Votes. You can hear those stories coming up this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Tamara and Elsa, thanks so much.
KEITH: Thank you.
CHANG: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.