U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis sparked discussion nationwide when he publicly supported making oral contraceptives available over the counter — and women’s rights organizations are claiming it was an empty political gesture.
Tillis made the comments Sept. 3 at the first televised debate between him and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Both are competing in a tight North Carolina race for support from women.
But an Elon University poll released Monday found that Hagan leads Tillis by a 19-point margin among women voters.
And groups like Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina are speaking out against his record as N.C. Speaker of the House and his support of legislation they consider harmful to women.
“North Carolina is a critical state for women’s health in the Senate race,” said Sarah Eldred, spokeswoman for the state chapter of the pro-choice group.
Planned Parenthood Votes, the national organization’s political action committee, launched an ad Sept. 12 — the first of a series — denouncing Tillis’ backing of over-the-counter contraceptives.
Tillis’ campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mitch Kokai, policy analyst for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, said he believes Tillis’ remarks were a way to tackle the misconception that the Republican candidate lacks an understanding of women constituents.
“It was a way to blunt that perceived edge that Kay Hagan might have on women voters,” he said.
But Chris Hayden, spokesman for Hagan’s campaign, said he believes the proposal, combined with a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Tillis has said he supports, would hurt women.
“The real problem here is the issue of affordability,” he said. “Kay is obviously in favor of access to birth control.”
Hayden said in addition to access to preventative care, he thinks equal pay, a higher federal minimum wage and education are other key issues that impact women voters and are at the forefront of Hagan’s campaign.
“These women’s issues are just a part of the clear contrast in this race,” he said.
Kokai said he believes the Tillis campaign has taken a more holistic approach to the issue of women’s rights.
“Rather than targeting women as women, he’s trying to target women as voters who have concerns similar to men about the impact of the federal Affordable Care Act,” he said.
Eldred said registered female voters in the state outnumber male voters by 500,000 and represent an important voting bloc.
She said Planned Parenthood Votes’ new ad cycle — part of a larger advocacy campaign called “Women are Watching”— is making the argument that Tillis’ stance on women’s rights could cost women up to $600 a year, as repealing the Affordable Care Act would remove contraceptive coverage.
“In addition, birth control is not a one-size-fits-all medication,” Eldred said.
The ad campaign argues the proposal would not benefit all women because it only covers oral contraceptives, while other forms require the care of a medical professional, she said, and no birth control manufacturer has submitted a proposal to the FDA to make oral contraceptives available over the counter.
Planned Parenthood Votes has invested more than $500,000 into the ad cycle in North Carolina, which is slated to run until mid-October. Eldred said the PAC launched a similar ad campaign in Colorado where Senate candidate Cory Gardner, R-C.O., has also expressed support for the introduction of over-the-counter oral contraceptives.
Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the focus on women’s rights in the race is an attempt on both sides to mobilize women voters.
“I think this is an attempt by the Republicans to essentially neutralize the issue of contraception, and I think it remains to be seen if it will effectively do so,” he said. “But certainly based on the political tactics of it, it does seem like a smart move.”
Greene said the debate between Tillis and Hagan is part of a larger trend of politicizing the issue of contraception.
“It’s definitely more of a political issue now,” he said. “Contraception has not really been much of a political issue at all in modern times, and I think the Obamacare mandate has really kind of helped make it a political issue in ways it hasn’t been probably for decades.”