PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — It took Republican Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis 16 hours to travel from western Wyoming to the Florida Panhandle on Sept. 26 to campaign for her embattled colleague, Rep. Steve Southerland II.
Like other women in her conference, she is spending this pre-election recess fanning out over the country to help House Republicans in competitive races, especially men struggling through what Democrats have deemed the GOP's "War on Women."
"I spent the entire day — a long day — traveling, and it means a lot to me to be here for Steve, because I want to serve with him," Lummis said in a interview here recently week, surrounded by veterans at a small gathering before a Women for Southerland rally.
Southerland faces a fierce re-election fight against Democrat Gwen Graham, an attorney and Florida political scion, in the 2nd District, a region that includes Tallahassee and stretches to the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
Southerland, in particular, has struggled with female voters. Earlier this year, his supporters hosted a male-only fundraiser with an invitation that read, "tell the Misses not to wait up." Southerland responded to news reports on the event by comparing the event to a lingerie shower .
That's in part how, on Sept. 27, a handful of female Republican officeholders descended upon Panama City Beach. Besides Lummis, Rep. Martha Roby drove that morning from her home in Montgomery, Ala., with her young daughter to attend the rally. Former Arkansas first lady Janet Huckabee was also in attendance. Pink is the event's color of choice, filling signs and attire. Dozens of women sport pink Southerland campaign shirts as the congressman's family and campaign staff pass out pink "Women for Southerland" bumper stickers.
This is what a GOP counteroffensive on gender looks like.
"It's really a response to the War on Women," Women for Southerland Co-Chair Ann Mitchell said. "I don't like the gender politics. Every issue is a woman's issue."
Southerland pointed out the many women in his life to show his bona fides.
"This fallacy that I don't care for women, I think, is crazy," Southerland said in an interview. "Listen, I live with five women. My business partner is a woman. I've got more women on my congressional staff than I do men."
He added the focus on gender division was the modus operandi of the Democratic playbook. He argued his foes had created "diversions" because they couldn't run against him on other issues.
That defensive point is the refrain of the day. At the rally, female speakers decried those three words, "War on Women," and insisted Democrats are exploiting the phrase because they cannot win on the issues.
This not-quite-sellout crowd is Southerland's home base. They are furious at the charges, at Graham, at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and at the Democratic Party.
Roby gave one of the more fiery speeches, calling the "War on Women" "fabricated" and wondered how she, as a female Republican, could declare a war on herself. She also noted she came to Congress in the same class as Southerland, offering a testimonial of his character and performance in Washington, D.C.
"He's been recognized as a leader, not just in our class but throughout the entire Republican conference," Roby said. "He loves his people, and you are his people, and we need you to send him back to Congress."
Republicans said out-of-area members perform several functions when they campaign for colleagues in their district. For example, they attract local press, they energize a campaign, they impress the national significance of these contests to locals.
Lummis dismissed the notion that she was there to give Southerland cover on gender.
"We are here to show women that Republican policies are better for women," she said in an interview. "Republicans have not done a very good job stating their case with women."
Elsewhere, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., is traveling to Arizona later this month, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has an extensive campaign travel schedule ahead of her. McMorris Rodgers has also done conference calls with House candidates on how to answer charges on women's issue and sends them briefing memos on the topic.
Male Republicans such as Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado and House challenger Stewart Mills in Minnesota are flooding the airwaves with ads targeting female voters on topics ranging from sexual assault to domestic violence and featuring women testifying to the male candidates' character.
A few hours later, Graham brushed off the morning rally's themes.
"You wanna hear how many lingerie showers I've been to?" Graham said, laughing in an interview in St. George Island.
"The problems are the votes he's taken and the positions he's taken," she said, citing Southerland votes on "Paycheck Fairness" and the Violence Against Women Act.
Graham adds that the gender issue is not specific to Florida's 2nd District: "I think it's resonating across the country."
"Despite putting women on the stage and saying they live with them, Republicans still don't understand that until they decide to fight for policies that actually improve the lives of women, they're not going to see women on their side," said EMILY's List spokeswoman Marcy Stech.
But back in Panama City Beach, Southerland insisted the Democrats are flailing.
"They can't talk about the economy. They can't talk about our security," he said. "So they make up things, and when people make up things, I like where we are."
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