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After winning over moms in back-to-back elections, Republicans have lost their advantage among married women with children this year.
The Republican Party has seen the support of people like Jeannette Hopkins evaporate.
A 30-year-old married mother of two and a Republican, Hopkins voted for President Bush in 2004. But she says she probably will support the Democrat in her congressional district this fall "because of the way that everything’s been handled" with the GOP in charge of Congress and Bush in the White House.
"We’re in a really scary place right now," Hopkins said recently. She vented about what she called the gone-on-too-long Iraq war, a sluggish economy, the bungled Hurricane Katrina response and a continuing terrorism threat.
She blamed Republicans as she hustled down an alley to the office she manages in this Louisville, Ky., suburb.
Votes like hers could decide which party controls the House and Senate after the Nov. 7 vote.
Poll results and interviews with political analysts indicate the GOP has lost ground with a voting group that helped the party keep hold of Congress and the White House in 2002 and 2004. Married moms have become a volatile swing group just as Democrats need to gain 15 GOP-held House seats and six in the Senate to win control of Capitol Hill.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month found that support is now evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans among married women with children in the house. Republicans won this voting group by 18 percentage points in 2002 and Bush won it by 14 percentage points in 2004.
The shift among married moms was reflected in the anxiety-laden voices of several in the Ohio River Valley, a conservative region home to several competitive House races.
"People have no money. The economy is not going well," said Michele Huber, 29. A married mother of three, she gave the country a "poor to fair" rating as she speed-walked in a suburban Cincinnati park with one of her children, a niece and a nephew in tow.
A Republican, she voted for Bush in 2004. She said she was not sure whether she would again if she had the chance or whether she would vote with her party next month — a sentiment echoed by others.
For years, the GOP has held a slight advantage with this group of voters. Republicans made additional gains leading up to and through the 2000 presidential election, in part because, according to analysts and exit polls, married moms were attracted to Bush’s emphasis on social conservatism and had a general fondness for the man himself.
In the 2002 congressional elections, more than half of married moms sided with Republicans while only 35 percent voted with Democrats. Two years later, in a presidential election year, married moms preferred Bush over Democratic Sen. John Kerry by 56 percent to 42 percent.
That GOP advantage has evaporated.
In the AP-Ipsos poll, married women with children split evenly on the question of whether they would vote for or lean toward the Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional district.
The frustration in this group of voters is a reflection of the broader population, now down on the president and Congress as the unpopular Iraq war drags on and economic growth has slowed.
"Married moms, like Americans in other demographic groups, are much more critical of President Bush, are angry at Washington, are concerned about Iraq and are worried about many other things," said Andrew Kohut. He is director of the Pew Research Center, an independent public opinion organization that also found married moms breaking even.
The AP-Ipsos poll showed that married moms care as much about health care and the economy as they do about terrorism. The situation in Iraq is a greater concern than taxes, Social Security and gas prices. They tend to believe that Democrats would handle Iraq and the economy better than Republicans, but they favor Republicans on dealing with terrorism.
Outside a Wal-Mart in Fort Wright, Ky., two moms hauled their kids out of their minivans. One of the women voted for Bush. One did not. Neither was pleased with the direction of the country.
"We’re not happy," said Christy Blaker, 32, as she loaded a McDonald’s-munching Emily, 4, and Becca, 18 months, into a shopping cart. A self-described independent, the stay-at-home mom and her husband, who replaces the breaks on train wheels, did not back Bush in 2004. She says she probably will not support Republicans next month.
The war unnerves and conflicts her. She frets about "horrible" gas prices and bemoans an economy in which inflation seems to rise higher than wages. If life does not improve, she said she may have to get a part-time job.
Across the parking lot, another stay-at-home mom, Tina Wagner, 31, voiced similar fears while two of her three children, Grace, 4, and Faith, 15 months, fidgeted. Hope, 6, was in school.
A Republican, Wagner voted for Bush in 2004 but expressed disappointment about his job performance in the two years since.
"He’s made some good decisions but I also think he’s made some bad," she said, lamenting Bush’s justification for going to war in Iraq. "I feel like he rushed into it."
She, too, complained about gas prices, job losses, health care costs and lack of coverage. "It keeps getting worse and worse," said Wagner, whose husband’s textbook sales job supports the family.
This fall, Wagner said she would consider voting for a Democrat "if they fit my values."
Despite the GOP’s lost ground, all is not lost for Republicans.
Laura Hall of Pewee Valley, Ky., has three kids, including a high-school-aged son who is considering joining the military upon graduation. The owner of a child- and elder-care placement service, the 46-year-old Hall worries about immigration, border security and threats from North Korea.
A Republican, she voted for Bush in 2004. She is uncertain if she will stick with the party this fall. But she is not hot on Democrats, either.
"I never see them explain how they could do it better," Hall said. "If somebody could explain how they could do it better, then I think I’d be more open to their ideas."