WASHINGTON — Mike Huckabee's comments about contraception proved quick fodder for Democrats and a headache for Republicans trying to market themselves as a better choice for female voters who have proved elusive to the GOP.
The former Arkansas governor and potential presidential contender told fellow Republicans on Thursday that Democrats were trying to win over female voters by promising them birth control and telling them they cannot manage "their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."
The comments came as the Republican National Committee is working to soften its image among women, who favored President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin over GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"Mike Huckabee has no idea what he's talking about," Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. "If this is the GOP rebrand a year later, then all they've gotten is a year older."
Asked about Huckabee's comments, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the White House that it "sounds offensive to me and to women."
In Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign sought to paint her Republican rival, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as in lockstep with Huckabee.
"Mitch McConnell's cringe-worthy record of standing up for Kentucky's women and families effortlessly aligns with Mike Huckabee's extreme, anti-woman rhetoric," Grimes' campaign said in a statement. "As McConnell enthusiastically touts Huckabee's endorsement, he ought to explain to the women of Kentucky why he embraces such offensive commentary."
And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized GOP candidates in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia for accepting donations from Huckabee. In Arkansas, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee criticized GOP hopeful Tom Cotton: "It's a shame Republicans like Cotton and Huckabee want to push divisive social issues that would roll back women's health care rights instead of focusing on growing the economy and creating jobs."
The whole episode started during Thursday's luncheon at the Republican National Committee's meeting in Washington. Huckabee, who is considering a run for the White House, urged the GOP to broaden its appeal and end its internal divisiveness.
Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives and a Fox News host, meant his speech to whet the 168-member Republican central committee's appetite for a Huckabee 2016 campaign.
Instead, his take on reproductive rights highlighted one of his many hurdles in expanding his appeal beyond Christian conservatives, as well as the GOP's broader challenges.
"If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are hopeless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them with their prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," Huckabee said, echoing comments he previously made on his Fox News program.
Penny Nance, CEO and president of the conservative Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, defended Huckabee and criticized Democrats.
"The president and others have profited politically from the false narrative that women are weak and need big government to be our savior," she said in a statement.
For his part, Huckabee sent an email to supporters trying to raise money off of his remarks.
"The Democrats and their accomplices in the media want you to think what I said is unpopular and outdated. They are going to look at our PAC's fundraising and say, 'See we told you so,'" Huckabee wrote to allies.
The GOP has struggled to win back female voters and has worked to soften its rhetoric on reproductive rights. As part of Democrats' national health care law, insurers have to provide free contraception.
Huckabee's prescription might complicate that effort and diminish enthusiasm for his name appearing among the potential Republican contenders.
Huckabee ran for the White House in 2008 and has kept in touch with the party activists in Iowa and South Carolina who were with him then. At the same time, he has been talking with allies who would help him raise money if he decides to run.
Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company