Female GOP Candidates Eschew the Gender Card
A handful of Senate primary contests in August could put some Republican women on history-making paths in their states. But in a year that figures to be record-breaking for female candidates, GOP contenders aren't playing up gender on the campaign trail.
Much of the focus in this Year of the Woman has been placed on Democratic candidates, who in number outpace Republican female contenders for congressional offices. Polls show women are driving the Democratic base, fueled by the Donald Trump era and the #MeToo movement. This dynamic compounds existing challenges for Republican female candidates, including disparities in demographics and a Democratic Party infrastructure tailored to women. And many GOP women are still running as allies of Trump, not as resisters to his agenda.
On Thursday, Rep. Marsha Blackburn is expected to officially become the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate when Tennessee voters cast their primary ballots. If elected in November, Blackburn would become the first woman to represent the Volunteer State in the upper chamber. Her House colleague, Rep. Diane Black, is running in a crowded primary for governor of Tennessee, which has never elected a woman to that post either.
In Wisconsin, state Sen. Leah Vukmir is vying to become the first Republican woman to represent her state in the U.S. Senate if she wins the primary there on Aug. 14. Arizona has never sent a woman to the Senate, but this year is almost guaranteed to be different. Rep. Martha McSally and physician Kelli Ward are running in the GOP primary on Aug. 28, and the winner will face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in November.
But the historic nature of their candidacies isn't a main feature, if one at all, of their campaigns in the way it has been for Democrats. "I don't put my focus on being the first," Blackburn told RealClearPolitics in an interview. "I think it's important to put the focus on why people should elect me, and on the record of accomplishment and the background that I bring to be of service. That's the story we prefer to tell."
When she won her House seat in 2002, Blackburn became the first woman elected to Congress from her state who didn't succeed her husband in office. And Black served as the first female chair of the state Senate GOP caucus. When she later went on to chair the House Budget Committee, she preferred to go by “chairman,” and Blackburn preferred to be addressed as “congressman.” "It is a title given to us in the Constitution," Black told the Columbia Daily Herald in an interview. "I don’t run as a candidate of gender. I run as a candidate that represents all people."
Other candidates have echoed that sentiment. "We don't play the identity politics game the way the left does," Ward told RCP. "We will have a woman who becomes the next senator from our great state, [but] people aren't as focused on gender identity as they are on getting someone who actually represents them."
Vukmir said that while she is excited about record number of women running for the upper chamber, "I’ve always said I’ve never looked at that as an issue.”
McSally is one of the most vaunted Republican recruits this cycle, due in part to her barrier-breaking biography as the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission. But she is using the gender dynamic differently than Democratic colleagues. "I'm a fighter pilot and I talk like one. That's why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done," McSally said in her campaign launch video, which highlighted her successful efforts to overturn a military rule that required her to wear a headscarf while stationed in Saudi Arabia.
McSally told RCP that being elected Arizona's first woman senator would be an honor, but said her experience making history as a fighter pilot taught her "that what really matters is how well you fly the plane and hit your targets."
After Capitol Hill faced its own reckoning with charges of sexual misconduct, McSally told the Wall Street Journal that she had been sexually abused by a high school track coach. However, she and most women running in Republican primaries have endeared themselves to Trump despite his controversies, as he remains extremely popular with the party base. "I actually was part of the Women for Trump movement," Vukmir told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel when asked whether the president might hinder her chances. "I believe the president has done great things already in the short time he has been in office."
But in the general election in many states, Republicans at large are concerned about the ways in which the president may alienate moderate and suburban women, who will play a key role in determining the balance of power in Congress. Female candidates can help neutralize inherent party disadvantages, strategists say. But they can't really distance themselves from Trump, either.
Operatives point to Alabama Rep. Martha Roby as an example. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out in 2016, Roby withdrew her support for Trump. But earlier this year, she was forced into a primary runoff in her state, facing charges of being insufficiently supportive of the president. She won the runoff -- after Trump endorsed her.
Republican strategist Alice Stewart spells out the balancing act for GOP women in addressing the president's comments and past behavior: "It's incumbent upon women running for office, you have to call that out. Silence is condoning it. You can't be silent. But when Trump's popularity is above 85 percent, you're going to face pushback."
In some cases, Republican women have benefited from Trump era politics. Last month, Katie Arrington defeated South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford in a GOP primary, in part because he openly criticized the president.
But elsewhere, other Republican women are facing headwinds in the current political climate, no matter their efforts to embrace the #MeToo movement. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock is a leading advocate on Capitol Hill for sexual harassment legislation. But her Northern Virginia district voted for Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points, making her one of the most vulnerable House Republicans up for re-election.
Republican women candidates face varying dynamics in the Trump era, depending on their states. Blackburn risks little by aligning herself with Trump in Tennessee, while candidates in swing states are in a different boat. Trump won a majority of white women, a key Republican constituency, in the 2016 election, even as he lost women overall. But new polling shows the way in which women voters are increasingly inclined toward Democrats.
A new Quinnipiac University survey found that women backed Democratic candidates, 57 percent to 32 percent, while men were more equally divided. And an NPR/Marist/PBS poll found that just 30 percent of women approved of Trump's job performance, while 62 percent disapproved. And just 20 percent of women approved of the Republican-led Congress, while 69 percent disapproved. The survey also found that 54 percent of women preferred Democratic candidates for Congress, while 33 percent preferred Republicans.
The notion that women tend to lean Democratic nationwide is contributing to the disparities between the parties when it comes to female candidates. Analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that of the 307 women candidates currently running for the U.S. House (the number at the start of the primary cycle was 476), 228 of them are Democrats and 79 are Republicans. And of the 36 women currently running for the Senate, 21 are Democrats and 15 are Republicans.
"This pink wave is really a blue wave," says Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers and a CAWP scholar. Dittmar says that more Republican women are running for the Senate this year than ever before, but that it has not been a record year for GOP House candidates. (The high-water mark was 2010, the election that gave Republicans control of the House.) Meanwhile, Democrats are having a record year for women candidates in both the House and the Senate.
Dittmar says there are a variety of factors contributing to the party disparity. They include demographics, GOP resistance to gender politics, and fewer outside organizations recruiting and funding Republican women candidates. (And Republican women could see their ranks dwindle in the House in part because several incumbents have announced their retirement or are seeking higher office.)
Republicans say they have been working to compete with Democrats on these levels. The National Republican Congressional Committee tapped New York Rep. Elise Stefanik to become the first woman to chair its recruitment efforts. As the youngest woman elected to Congress, Stefanik has put an emphasis on encouraging non-traditional candidates, especially women and minorities, to seek office. "It’s great to see women running on both sides of the aisle," she told CBS News. "We’re more bipartisan and we need to increase our numbers in Congress to be more reflective of the population at large."
GOP strategists acknowledge the party has ground to make up, especially since Trump has mobilized female voters on the Democratic side. The Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration proved to be a recruiting and grassroots motivating tool for Democratic voters.
"The Women's March was not a women's march. It was an anti-Trump march,” says Stewart, the GOP strategist who has worked for a variety of candidates, including Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. "Just because Republicans haven't put on pink stocking caps and marched in the streets doesn't mean there aren't efforts to get women involved in politics."
But there is also concern about the near absence of big-money donors who are women. "What is the deal about them not getting out their checkbooks?" says Noelle Nikpour, a GOP fundraiser and finance bundler. "It's like pulling teeth to find a female CEO or business owner to make that transition” into political donations. She notes that Rebecca Mercer is a well-known Republican donor, but Nikpour is “distraught” that more women haven’t joined in.
"It's to people's advantage to pull the woman card," she says of GOP candidates and activists. "We are running and holding office, so it's a big deal."
GOP Women's Issues on the Campaign Trail
Democrats believe Trump administration policies and rhetoric, and the politics of abortion surrounding his nominee for the Supreme Court, will mobilize women in their favor. But Republican women candidates argue female voters aren't a monolithic group when it comes to issues they care about.
"I think conservative women know we're not going to be the ones that receive the focus and the attention, it's just never been that way," Backburn said. "[Democrats] try to say women are just concerned about one or two things. But the number one issue with women is a good solid economy."
Blackburn, who has fought Planned Parenthood funding, says she encounters many so-called "security moms" who are focused on economic and national security issues.
"Women want their children to be safe wherever they go, and they are very concerned with what is happening with the labor gangs and the MS-13 gangs," Blackburn said, echoing Trump's campaign rhetoric. "Women are so adamant about securing the border and solving this issue, knowing who is coming into this country."
Trump has endorsed the eight-term congresswoman, and recently campaigned for her in the state he won by 26 points. Blackburn is running as an ally and advocate of Trump, though she has voiced occasional disagreements with him. When the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Blackburn called Trump's comments indefensible, but she did not withdraw her support, arguing that he would still be a better president than Hillary Clinton.
When Trump criticized MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski’s looks last year, Blackburn issued a sharply worded Facebook post, which read, in part: "This week’s inappropriate and pointless tweets from the President are a stark example of just what has gone wrong in our political discourse today."
But Blackburn argues that women voters she encounters on the campaign trail are more concerned with actions than rhetoric. "A lot of times I'll be in Tennessee and talking with moms and they are so appreciative about the president's focus on getting the economy in gear, in funding our military, taking care of veterans," she says. "They are going, 'Our lives are better since Donald Trump was elected president...thank you for a Republican-controlled Congress and for what this administration has done.'"
The bottom line is that Republican strategists are encouraging women candidates to focus on these issues. "It's the year of the woman, but it also needs to be the year of the best candidate," says Stewart.