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Campaigns’ messages geared toward women

An ad for gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker featured a nurse and told of his work at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

An ad for gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker featured a nurse and told of his work at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

Women, whose votes are always a sought-after electoral prize, have surged into starring roles in recent weeks as the advertising campaigns for statewide candidates have jumped onto the airwaves with a heavily female cast of supporters extolling the merits of their preferred candidates.

The stream of campaign ads that began earlier this month complements similar emphasis in the off-air campaign messaging, as male candidates and their backers look to blunt the built-in edge their female opponents enjoy with women, while the female candidates look to capitalize on that advantage.

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“I don’t think women are more important this time around, but I do think there’s more of a focus on them this time around,” said Meredith Warren, a Republican consultant. “And I think that’s because candidates see them as more up for grabs than other demographics.”

Women in Massachusetts make up more than half of the electorate — 54 percent — and can offer a crucial crop of undecided voters, ensuring they are heavily courted in every election. Even by that measure, political observers call the heightened focus this year unusual.

Voters can see this dynamic throughout the day on their TV screens, where Democratic candidate for attorney general Warren Tolman devoted his first flight of advertisements to the 1994 killings of two women at Brookline abortion clinics, decrying the attacks while emphasizing his support for abortion rights. Tolman, a former state senator, is running in the primary against Maura Healey, a former assistant attorney general. The Republican nominee is John Miller of Winchester.

Warren Tolman, a candidate for attorney general, devoted early ads to emphasizing his support for abortion rights.

Tolman campaign

Warren Tolman, a candidate for attorney general, devoted early ads to emphasizing his support for abortion rights.

In a separate ad entitled “Laura,” an independent expenditure group features a registered nurse by that name extolling GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s work at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Baker’s own image appears on-screen for no more than seven seconds of the 30-second spot, the rest devoted to Laura and to Beth Lindstrom, a former Republican gubernatorial administration aide and now president of the super PAC. An earlier ad bankrolled by the group featured 20 seconds of Baker footage, and 10 seconds of Lindstrom.

The theme was foreshadowed last March during the state GOP convention in Boston when Baker’s camp held a special breakfast event for women, featuring a parade of female Baker backers who testified to his temperament but acknowledged his dilemma.

‘There are more women running statewide than probably ever before in Massachusetts.’

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“In the last go-round, Charlie didn’t resonate with women voters,” said Mary Ann Tocio, who sat on the Harvard Pilgrim board during Baker’s tenure.

Baker is still seeking to close a polling deficit with Coakley, who has been waging a “Moms for Martha” tour across the state for the past month. Last weekend, Coakley’s camp augmented that effort with a “women’s weekend of action,” designed to canvass voters and highlight “the importance of women in creating a more fair and prosperous economy.”

Both followed Coakley’s formation of a “women’s leadership council,” keyed to women’s health and economic well-being.

But, lest Coakley corner the market on female voters in her Democratic primary contest with Treasurer Steve Grossman and former federal health care administrator Don Berwick, a super PAC backing Grossman launched its first wave of ads by seeking to dilute that advantage.

That spot featured four Boston-area mothers who had lost children to gun violence, faulting Coakley for not being strong enough on gun control. Coakley’s campaign responded with an online video criticizing the influence outside money has on elections.

And Grossman’s own campaign, in press outreach and visibility efforts, has sought to play up his support among female officeholders and activists.

“I think it’s definitely more intense this year,” said Chris Keohan, a Democratic strategist advising Deb Goldberg’s campaign for treasurer. “It has to do with the fact that there are more women running statewide than probably ever before in Massachusetts.”

At least six women will be on the ballot for statewide office. In addition to Coakley and Healey, Republican Karyn Polito is running for lieutenant governor, Democrat Deborah Goldberg is running for state treasurer, and Suzanne Bump, the current Democratic state auditor, will face off against Republican Patricia Saint Aubin.

And, Keohan said, women could account for close to 60 percent of the primary vote this year, lured by the strong crop of female contenders. Goldberg is running against two men in the Democratic primary — Tom Conroy and Barry Finegold. The winner will face Republican Mike Heffernan in November.

During the 2012 national elections, Democrats capitalized on statements by Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana to accuse Republicans of conducting a “war on women,” particularly on reproductive rights. While the party has backed off that bellicose messaging nationally, Democrats in Massachusetts pounced last month when Baker downplayed the local impact of a Supreme Court decision that employers such as Hobby Lobby could avoid the 2010 federal health care law’s birth-control coverage mandate if they oppose contraception on religious grounds.

Baker sought to salve that wound by clarifying his comments and emphasizing his pro-choice stance.

“I think that Charlie has a real chance here to pull women into their side, because women are looking for someone who aren’t going to trample their rights, and Charlie is good on women’s rights,” Warren, the Republican consultant, said.

In his unsuccessful 2010 campaign, Baker cut a harder-edged profile than he has so far this year, and the numbers showed it to be a losing strategy. A MassINC post-election poll showed Baker losing women to Deval Patrick by 24 points, 57 percent to 33 percent, with the remaining 9 percent going to then-Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who ran as an independent.

This year, strategists for several campaigns in the governor’s race say that Coakley has a natural leverage with female voters because she is a woman. The same is true in the attorney general’s race, where Healey is polling nearly even with Tolman.

According to exit polls, female voters helped Democrat Elizabeth Warren win by a large margin over then-senator Scott Brown, a Republican, in 2012, the year Democrats worked to play up impolitic statements by national Republicans. Those polls showed Warren capturing the female vote by 18 percentage points.

And, as recently as last year, Katherine Clark emphasized gender to emerge from a crowded Democratic primary and win an off-year US House seat.

Due to editing errors, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified Suzanne Bump’s role, as well as the office that Maura Healey and Warren Tolman are seeking.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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