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100th EA-18G Growler delivery ceremony and employee rally

Sen. Claire McCaskill fields questions from reporters regarding the future of EA-18G Growler production at the Boeing plant in St. Louis after a rally celebrating delivery of the 100th Growler to the Navy on Monday, May 5, 2014. McCaskill spoke in favor the continued funding of the plane's production. Photo By David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

WASHINGTON • Both say it is about the policy, but in pursuing different avenues on legislation targeting violence against women, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Ann Wagner, R- Ballwin, may find it difficult to avoid election-year gender politics.

Turnout in the Nov. 4 elections will determine control of Congress in Barack Obama’s last two years as president. The president won re-election in 2012 with the biggest gender gap since Gallup began keeping track, winning women by 12 percentage points while losing men by 8, a gap of 20 points.

The gender gap has been a powerful undercurrent in electoral politics for several decades. Now, with a record number of women serving in Congress, gender is increasingly a factor in policy focus.

In 1966, one million more women than men voted. In the last three elections, that gap has been more than 5 million, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In 2010, 50.6 million women reported voting, to 45.4 million men.

This is why the Democratic efforts to confront sexual assault in the military and on campus, with McCaskill playing a lead role, can’t be seen in a political vacuum. The same can be said for Republican efforts to take on human trafficking, which victimizes women and children the most. Wagner has sponsored a bill that would criminalize human trafficking, part of a Republican multiple-bill effort on the issue scheduled to come for a vote in the House of Representatives this month.

Wagner portrays the GOP efforts on trafficking as the fruits of an educational effort within her male-dominated Republican caucus in the House, which has 19 women among 234 members.

McCaskill said she hoped the push for a tougher response to sexual assault on campuses would stay “on the policy and not the politics.”

The issues of violence against women and human trafficking are not new. The Pentagon’s Tailhook scandal, which involved widespread assault at a convention in Las Vegas, happened 23 years ago.

When the Tailhook scandal exploded in 1991, there were four women senators and 28 women in the House. Today, there are a record 20 women senators, 16 of them Democrats, and a record 79 female members of the House, 60 of them Democrats.

Additionally, politics abhors a vacuum — and many politicians abhor do-nothing labels. Congress is so divided over immigration reform and broad spending and taxing priorities that anything with a scent of bipartisanship is getting more attention. With the election looming, Republicans and Democrats alike are seeking bipartisanship where they can. McCaskill called the GOP’s anti-trafficking push a “no-brainer.”

Congress may also be catching up with social and legal trends. The GOP efforts against trafficking coincide with horrific headlines about Islamist militants kidnapping and selling into slavery hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.

Tuesday, McCaskill and the 19 other female senators signed a letter condemning the actions of the Boko Haram terrorist group behind the kidnapping. On Wednesday, Wagner and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., co-authored a letter to Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power that commended Obama’s administration for sending military, intelligence and hostage negotiation aid to help the Nigerian government locate and free the more than 200 girls allegedly kidnapped by the group. Wagner and McLane Kuster were seeking the signatures of all female members of the House.

“This intersection between the twin scourges of human trafficking and terrorism is extremely disturbing,” the Wagner-McLane Kuster letter says. “Terrorists groups like Boko Haram finance their activities through criminal enterprises such as kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion.”

McCaskill said that “there has been a continuum of change” in laws involving sexual assault and violence against women. When she was first elected to the Missouri legislature in 1982, for instance, “it was legal to rape your wife,” she said.

“We are making great progress,” she added, “but we still have a ways to go, and this silent epidemic on college campuses is an example that we have not yet gotten to the point that we are doing as good a job as we need to do to protect victims of this crime.”

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.