Last week, Senator Scott Brown shared the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast stage with his daughter Ayla as she sang “God Bless America.’’ He toured a shelter for victims of domestic violence on Friday with his sister, where the two shared stories of their difficult childhoods. And on Monday, he and his wife, Gail Huff, joined Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine to announce the formation of the Women for Brown Coalition.
Brown, a Republican facing a difficult challenge from Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, has been hard to spot without a woman by his side in recent weeks.
The focus on women follows Brown’s vote on March 1 in favor of a failed measure that inflamed many women’s groups. The so-called Blunt amendment would have allowed employers to deny health coverage for contraceptives and other treatments if they had a moral objection.
In its wake, Brown - well known for his pickup truck and frequent calls to male-oriented talk radio shows - has focused intensely on courting women voters. To win in November, political analysts say, Brown will probably have to win big among men and hold close to even among women, as he did in 2010 against Attorney General Martha Coakley.
This month, Brown has made radio ads, written a letter, appeared on CNN, and spoken on the Senate floor to reinforce his support for giving women a greater role in combat, and for reauthorizing the federal Violence Against Women Act.
Warren, meanwhile, is benefiting from strong support among women’s groups, including Emily’s List, the political action committee geared toward helping put more Democratic women in Congress. National Democrats have also tried to market Warren as one of a number of strong female candidates running for Senate this year against what they call a Republican “War on Women.’’
But Brown has signaled that he will fight hard for female voters. His appeal has been largely personal. Monday, as 30 women stood behind him in his South Boston campaign headquarters, Brown noted that he came from an abusive household and alluded to a camp counselor’s sexual assault on him when he was a boy. He spoke about the influence of his grandmother in raising him and about his current role as the father of two girls and husband to Huff, a television reporter.
“My entire life, I have been surrounded by some strong-willed women,’’ he said. “Still am.’’
Huff, who did little campaigning for Brown in advance of the 2010 election, said Monday that she would take on a larger role in the campaign this year because she is no longer working as a journalist in Massachusetts. She is now employed part time by WJLA in Washington, according to the campaign.
But citing his family as evidence of his support of women’s issues can send a mixed message.
Monday, when Huff was asked for an example of something she and her daughters had taught her husband, he cut in. “How to cook,’’ Brown joked.
Huff continued: “How to cook, how to sew, how to clean.’’
When pressed by a reporter for a policy issue, neither came up with an example.
“I can’t point to a specific policy issue,’’ Huff said. “I can only say we talk about things around the table and the girls, now that they are 23 and 21, have very, very specific ideas about what they do and don’t believe and they chime in with a lot of great ideas.’’
There is evidence Brown can hold his own among women voters, even while facing a female candidate. A Suffolk University poll taken just before the 2010 special election showed Brown losing the female vote to Coakley, but only by 5 percentage points. According to the poll, Coakley could not overcome Brown’s dominance of the male vote, which had him ahead by 14 percentage points.
“He’s probably attempting to repeat that statistical model,’’ said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
Polls taken on the Brown-Warren race so far have been inconsistent. Paleologos took one in February that showed Brown leading Warren by 1 point among women. A late February survey by the Western New England University Polling Institute showed Warren with a 5-point lead among women.
Women make up a slight majority of likely voters and of the coveted independents who will decide the election. And Snowe on Monday emphasized that Brown, like her and fellow Maine Senator Susan Collins, is an independent voice.
“You’ll have to forgive us if we try to claim him as the third US senator from Maine,’’ Snowe said, noting that Brown was born in Kittery, but also implying a link between Brown and state’s two moderate female senators.
Snowe, who said last month that she would not seek reelection, has lamented the lack of moderate voices in the Senate and repeated yesterday that Brown is her bipartisan soul mate.
But Snowe’s friends also said publicly when she revealed her retirement that she was particularly troubled by the pressure she felt from her party on issues like the Blunt amendment, which she opposed and Brown cosponsored. Snowe was the only Republican to vote against the amendment.
On Monday, she said she and Brown “have honest differences about how to craft that conscience clause,’’ but that the two agree on the “key question’’: supporting women’s access to health care.
Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh said Brown’s recent focus on women is a direct result of his support for the Blunt amendment.
“He wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t know two facts,’’ Marsh said. “One, that unenrolled women will decide this election and two, that he didn’t take a hit in the polls’’ because of his support for the Blunt amendment.
Democrats say Brown is inconsistent, pointing to a 2010 vote against a bill to require employers to show that any pay disparity between men and women is job-related and not based on gender. Brown’s staff said existing laws, including the Civil Rights Act, already provide such protections and that the measure Brown opposed would have discouraged hiring.
But Jody Dow, an honorary cochairman of Brown’s committee and a member of the Republican National Committee, said Brown makes women comfortable for the same reason he appeals to men.
“He’s natural. He’s honest. He’s forthright,’’ he said. “He appeals to people because they know he tells the truth.’’