For the thousands of Maryland women watching “The Bachelorette,” who Becca picks in the coming finale — will it be Blake or Garrett? — may seem like the only decision on the romance reality television show.
The Republican Governors Association is asking Maryland women to make another decision: Choose Larry over Ben.
Beneath the focus of the GOP commercials running multiple times on that show and others — health care and taxes — is an understanding of the gender gap that exists with women and the Republican Party both nationally and in Maryland in Gov. Larry Hogan’s poll numbers.
The summer television campaign ad buys and mailings by the RGA appear to be an effort to bring out older women who once voted Republican and convince others to consider the party in a year when larger than usual numbers of women are expected to vote as an expression of opposition to Republican President Donald Trump.
Betsy Vonderheid, media director of Alexandria, Virginia-based SRCP Media, said that while the ad buys revealed in public records reach across day and prime-time shows, the combination of cable networks and specific broadcast programming “skews toward women.”
“The ads are focused on (voters) 35 plus,” said Vonderheid. “Shows like “Days of Our Lives,” “Ellen,” catch stay-at-home women. Prime time is still pretty important because it’s where you get the most impact.”
Neither Vonderheid nor SRCP Media, which provides media consulting for Republican candidates nationwide, are connected to the Hogan campaign or the Republican Governors Association ads running in Maryland.
The Republican Governors Association started running ads critical of Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous ads as part of a nearly $1.7 million spent on behalf of Hogan as an independent expenditure group, according to filings with the State Board of Elections since May. The vast majority of that has been spent on television and targeted mailings following the June 26 primary.
One ad, called “Big Spender,” focuses solely on the costs of programs championed by Jealous, including free college tuition. A second ad, called “Fire,” features the image of stacks of banded cash burning, claiming the single-payer health care plan backed by Jealous will more than double the state budget and cost Marylanders $2,800 in additional taxes.
Travis Tazelaar, Jealous’ campaign manager, called the ads false, misleading “and a sign of weakness.” He said it is not surprising that Hogan would want to reach women voters.
“What is completely surprising is that they are focused on (women) with attacks and misleading information and spreading misinformation about Ben’s plans,” said Tazelaar.
Skewed to women
Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, did not respond to requests for an interview. In an interview this week with Maryland Matters, Thompson declined to discuss specific strategies but called the ad campaign “a large buy … running nearly statewide, on both broadcast and cable.”
Online and television ads running on shows like The Bachelorette, The Ellen Show, Days of Our Lives, local news and cable networks, including E!, Food Network, Hallmark, HGTV and truTV, reveal a trend that focuses on women 35 and older, who tend to be upper-middle class, college educated, have at least one child and own their own homes, according to publicly available demographics and documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the stations and Republican Governors Association.
“The cable buys definitely look skewed to women. Male viewers can be elusive,” Vonderheid said, adding that even runs during local news tend to reach more women.
“They watch it more than the men,” she said.
In the Baltimore area, “The Bachelorette” tends to draw women viewers who are 35 and over.
“Older women are more likely to vote and more in charge fiscally,” said Gayle Economos, owner and president of GVE Media/Public Relations and lecturer emerita of Goucher College’s communication and media studies department.
Nationally, women tend to be the financial decision-makers in the home. Combined with the gender gap that Republicans have both in Maryland and nationally, reaching out to women makes sense, according to a number of Maryland political analysts.
“We can expect a pink wave this fall, with a record number of women running for office and with Democratic women the most energized to vote, based on their hostility to Trump and their prioritization of gender equality,” said Melissa Deckman, political science department chair and professor at Washington College, who writes about gender and politics. “Voter turnout is likely to be highest among women voters more generally.”
Deckman said the ads could be an indication that Hogan is trying to “influence not just those Democratic women who will vote more for Jealous given his party, but he’s trying to keep GOP and (unaffiliated) women on his side and to give them a reason to turn out to vote in this otherwise Democratic wave election.”
Republicans in Maryland have already experienced a drop-off with women voters, with fewer casting ballots in 2016 compared to 2012, according to John Willis, executive in residence at the University of Baltimore School of Public and International Affairs and a top political adviser to former Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat.
“They know they have a gap and they’re trying to close it,” said Willis.
“Where do you go when you need votes?” said Willis. “You maximize the cohorts you already have on your side or you try to eat in to where you’re weak. This series of ads is the latter — it’s where they’re the weakest.”
Erasing the gap
In Maryland, that is true for Hogan. The one-term Republican governor remains exceedingly popular and does very well with men but fewer women support his re-election, according to recent polls, including those conducted by the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
“Larry Hogan does better with women than other Republicans do,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor and director of the Goucher Poll. “The ads might be a way of Larry Hogan erasing a gender gap or at least trying to make sure it doesn’t prevent him from being re-elected.”
The ads, which so far have gone without response on television by Jealous, give Hogan and his supporters a chance to define his opponent before the fall.
“It’s never too soon to start defining your opponent,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Eberly said the ads are an attempt to prevent voters angry with the president from linking that anger to all Republicans, including Hogan. A focus on suburban, educated, middle- to upper-middle-class women is “smart.”
“These are the women who have totally turned on Trump and with whom (Republicans) need to make headway,” said Eberly.
Anecdotally, Eberly said, the skewing of ads to women tracks in his own household.
“My wife says she sees the (Republican Governors Association) ads all the time, and I’ve never seen any of them,” Eberly said. “We watch very different TV shows.”