WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told fellow Republicans on Thursday that rival Democrats were trying to win over female voters by promising them free birth control and telling them "they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government." Huckabee made the comment as he was making a pitch that the GOP needs to broaden its appeal and end its internal divisiveness.
Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives and a Fox News personality, told the Republican Party's leaders and activists that purity tests within the party only shrink the ranks. His speech about expanding the appeal of the GOP, designed to whet the 168-member Republican National Committee's appetite for a Huckabee 2016 campaign, won a quick rebuke from the White House over contraception.
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 private meetings and public speeches Huckabee has been offering a prescription for Republicans to expand their reach after losing back-to-back presidential contests. Chief among his recommendations is for the GOP to end the Republican-on-Republican fighting that has sometimes hurt his own political fortunes.
Huckabee's take on reproductive rights highlighted one of his many hurdles in expanding his appeal beyond Christian conservatives. As part of Democrats' national health care law, insurers have to provide no-cost contraception — something Huckabee said was pandering. Religious groups, in particular, have opposed the measure as running counter to their faith.
"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 has made on his Fox News program.
Female voters in 2012 sided with Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent. The GOP has struggled to win back female voters and Huckabee's prescription might complicate that effort.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Republicans would face irrelevance if they don't update their thinking.
"Mike Huckabee has no idea what he's talking about. If this is the GOP rebrand a year later then all they've gotten is a year older," Wasserman Schultz said.
Huckabee, who ran for the White House in 2008, is seriously weighing another White House run and has kept in touch with the party activists in Iowa and South Carolina who were with him last time. At the same time, he has been talking with allies who would help him raise money if he decides to run.
Advisers say Huckabee won't make any serious decisions until after he sees the results of the 2014 midterm congressional elections and how GOP candidates fare in races for governor. They say Huckabee is known among Republicans after the 2008 race and his Fox show, meaning there is no rush to start grabbing headlines as a candidate.
"Now, he's got money and he's got name ID. He's starting from a different tier this time around," said Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina strategist who ran Huckabee's political action committee and remains friendly with the former governor.