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Britt backlash stokes GOP fears about losing women voters

Britt backlash stokes GOP fears about losing women voters

Sen. Katie Britt’s (R-Ala.) State of the Union response is shining a light on the GOP’s struggle to appeal to women voters ahead of November’s elections.

The rebuttal was met with an avalanche of backlash for being out of touch, with many critics calling the choice to have Britt sitting at a kitchen table for the address sexist.

Political strategists and observers say Britt’s performance is largely emblematic of her party’s problem in appealing to women voters, particularly in the suburbs, who have recently turned their back on the party.

“Republicans have now two years in a row have picked a young woman — last year Sarah Huckabee Sanders, this year Katie Britt — to try to shift the image of the Republican Party away from older white men, which is really quite the reality of the party,” said Debbie Walsh, the executive director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

And there is no question that Britt is in the minority within her party in the Capitol. She is one of nine Republican women serving in the U.S. Senate.

“It is the image they are trying to strike in an attempt to reach women voters in some way,” Walsh said.

Republicans praised the choice of Britt to deliver the rebuttal, citing the contrast in age between her and President Biden, as well as her own record in the Senate. Last month, Britt played a leading role in helping Republicans navigate a ruling by her state’s Supreme Court that frozen embryos were considered children. She worked to gather support for in vitro fertilization as Democrats were using the issue to attack the GOP.

The GOP has struggled to reach women in recent years, particularly those in the suburbs, since former President Trump took office in 2016.

In the 2022 midterms, they helped deliver significant victories to Democrats in key swing states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. According to the Pew Research Center, Biden won 54 percent of suburban voters in general. And back in 2018, 53 percent of suburban women voters said they voted for Democrats, up from 47 percent in 2014 and 51 percent in 2016, according to CBS News exit polling.

“Not only do they have a problem appealing to women, but it’s just to suburban voters at large,” said Gunner Ramer, political director the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump right-leaning group.

Britt’s rebuttal featured her at her kitchen table, a location she and her family discuss issues impacting them, she said. Critics on the left and some on the right criticized the senator for using her kitchen backdrop, arguing that it fed into the outdated stereotypes about gender roles in the home. Britt defended the venue choice on “Fox News Sunday,” saying, “Republicans care about kitchen table issues.”

“We care about faith, family; we care about freedom. We are the ones talking about the economy and the real effects of that,” Britt said.

Meanwhile, Britt’s performance was excoriated during both a “Saturday Night Live” opening and comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

On top of all that, Britt has faced backlash over a story she told during the rebuttal of a woman facing sexual violence from two decades ago in Mexico.

The senator defended the anecdote in the same “Fox News Sunday” interview, saying it was representative of Biden’s border policy, even if it significantly predated his administration.

However, the venue choice, coupled with what many have described as an awkward delivery from Britt, resulted in critics pouncing.

“It felt a little Stepford Wife-ish, of, ‘Here’s how you can relate to me, because I’ll talk about my kids and I’ll reference my husband multiple times and that’s how you’ll related to me, not because I’m in the United States Senate and I know something,’” Walsh said.

Ramer highlighted a focus group that the Republican Accountability Project conducted with voters from swing states the day after the State of the Union. They overwhelmingly said that “weird” was the word that summed up their reaction to the address.

“It misreads the voters they need to win back, because appealing to the traditional woman voter sort of thing — a lot of those voters are already going to support Trump,” Ramer said. “What they needed to do was go after the suburban vote, and Katie Britt’s response didn’t do that, and I think we saw that reflected in the focus group we did.”

The State of the Union rebuttal is arguably one of the most thankless jobs in politics. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) famously delivered one of the more awkward responses when he took a swig of water midspeech in 2013. And back in 2009, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) appeared nervous when he began his rebuttal to then-President Obama with a “happy Mardi Gras.”

But not all State of the Union rebuttals have gone down in infamy. In 1995, then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) delivered her response to then-President Clinton’s State of the Union from the state capital in Trenton.

“It conveyed her authority and her position,” Walsh said.

Many Republicans have defended Britt following the address, saying she hit the right notes in terms of policy and delivery for the voters the party is working to appeal to.

“I didn’t listen to it live, and heard the media comments before I listened to it,” said Kate Day, the former chair of Cheshire County (N.H.) Republicans. “I was shocked this was the same speech. While her delivery seemed more conversational, showing compassion and emotion that some have criticized, the substance was absolutely spot-on.”

Republicans point out Britt’s inclusion of issues they emphasize are important to their party and Americans in general, including the border, the economy and public safety.

“I look at all of these speeches from a policy standpoint,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist. “Joe Biden couldn’t have had more of a stellar backdrop, a more impressive venue and optics and location, but it was a terribly divisive, political, angry speech that didn’t sit well with many voters.”

And when asked about the criticism over Britt’s venue of her kitchen, many Republicans have essentially said, “Who cares?”

“I was listening for content, so what the heck does it matter if she sat at her kitchen table or behind a podium?” Day said. “I hope it made every woman and mom think about the cumulative impact of Biden’s inflation on the higher weekly grocery bills we all face.”

Biden himself appeared to compliment Britt when asked about her rebuttal Friday.

“I thought she was a very talented woman, [but] I didn’t understand the connection she was making,” the president told reporters.

And while Britt’s rebuttal may be in the headlines now, the speech itself likely won’t play a long-term role in the GOP’s appeal to women and suburban voters unless Britt is a leading contender to be Trump’s running mate.

“I think this will probably pass,” Walsh said. “It could come back up if she’s in contention for a VP candidate for Donald Trump. Then it would come up in a bigger way.”

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