Sex and the GOP
In the media spectacle that is the 2010 midterm elections, women of the GOP are playing starring roles. They have figured prominently in nearly every plot and subplot that holds any real interest or potential for debased amusement: from Indian-American Nikki Haley's triumph over her mudslinging male rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nod in South Carolina, to Carly Fiorina's catty open-mic swipe at her opponent Barbara Boxer's hair in the first-ever contest between two women for a California Senate seat, to WWF founder and Connecticut Senate hopeful Linda McMahon's gifts to oh-so-lucky Democratic ad firms (including video of the candidate physically attacking a buxom, scantily clad woman purporting to be her husband's lover), to the daily dose of clips revealing Christine O'Donnell's youthful preoccupations with witchcraft and masturbation. Remember when politics was boring?
The party's reluctance to capitalize on its feminist successes makes it look scared—and weak.
By focusing on gender alone, institutional feminists opened the door for the Mama Grizzlies.
Before the new GOP women entered the picture, the Republican Party was like Kansas in The Wizard of Oz: colorless, defined by a white male old guard along with a lackluster lineup of "young guns" cut from the same drab cloth. Now the party is dancing down a yellow brick road to what it hopes is victory in November. As Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a 2012 presidential aspirant, proclaimed, "It's going to be a new day, a new era in terms of the face and voice and tone of the Republican Party, and I think that's really good." A movie just released by the conservative group Citizens United tells this happy tale: Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman features Michele Bachmann and Ann Coulter, among others.
The "GOP Year of the Woman," a label tossed out by pundits in the wake of some primaries in June, has been zestfully adopted by party operatives. "I like strong women," wrote strategist Mark McKinnon in The Daily Beast. "Agree with them or not, it's the women of the GOP…who are tough enough to say exactly what they think. And their words are resonating with an increasingly vocal electoral bloc."
But are they? Has the party truly cultivated and supported its women candidates, and is it, as a result, poised to bring more women to Washington and more women voters into the fold? Or, as it lurches to the right, is the GOP in fact alienating women, including voters and potential leaders, who tend to be less conservative than men in their partisan identification and ideological views? Is the party's embrace of the current array of female candidates really about enhancing its appeal to men?
Before turning to these questions, let's be precise: if 2010 is the year of anything other than antiestablishment rage, it is the year of the right-wing woman, a type that has prospered at the expense of moderates, male and female alike. It is true that a record number of women filed to run for office this year as Republicans—some of whom may have been inspired by Sarah Palin's example. But it is also true that a record number lost: of the 128 women running for the House, eighty-one were defeated in their primaries, leaving forty-seven still in the running. In the Senate, seventeen filed to run, but only five won. That's a much higher rate of primary loss for Republican women than in the previous six election cycles. With some exceptions, the female candidates who survived are very, very conservative. Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, says, "This is something quite far from a year of the woman. From the past, I would have assumed that the Republican women who are elected tend to be more moderate than Republican men. In this crop, we saw some very conservative women running and winning." It may well be that the Tea Party, with its bottom-up structure, provided an opening for ultraright women, like Christine O'Donnell, who had been grassroots activists but were hungry for a larger role in the electoral arena.
But to understand where GOP gender dynamics really are, it's important to consider not only the women who won this year's primaries but those who lost, and why. The picture that emerges is one of a national party that, at best, takes its women candidates for granted even as it plays up its new female-friendly image. Take Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Colorado's Jane Norton, both mainstream Republican women who saw little support from the party as they struggled to fend off their hard-right male challengers. While the party whacked away at O'Donnell in its futile attempt to save moderate Mike Castle in Delaware, it failed to respond with such alacrity when the Palin-endorsed Tea Partyer Joe Miller took aim at Murkowski—emphasizing her relative liberalism on abortion rights—in the Alaska Senate primary. "The national party seemed conflicted about Murkowski," noted another GOP woman who has had her own conflicts with the party, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, in an interview for this article.
When, after her primary loss, Murkowski launched a write-in campaign targeting Miller—a climate change denier who favors abolishing Medicaid and Social Security—as an extremist, the party's wrath was unleashed upon her, with minority leader Mitch McConnell threatening to strip her of her position as ranking member of the Energy Committee and declaring that she "no longer has my support for serving in any leadership roles." As Senate vice chair, she had been the party's sole female in a top leadership position. Karl Rove called her a "spoilsport" and her write-in campaign "sad and sorry."
As for Norton, the GOP establishment candidate for Senate in Colorado, after being recruited by the party she was largely on her own in a nasty contest with Tea Partyer Ken Buck—who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest along with many forms of birth control and asked for voters' support because "I don't wear high heels." A much hoped-for Palin endorsement never came through for Norton.
Even though moderate Republican female candidates are more in sync with women voters, they are not faring well in the present environment, in which the passion is with the angry Tea Party voters who are "sick and tired of what is going on" but are less clear about what they are for and are unmoved by women who "don't voice the same kind of passion but want to get things done," Christie Whitman observed. But Whitman still sees "an enormous place" for moderate women in politics and peril ahead for the GOP if they continue to be sidelined. "Purity is a nice thing in concept, but in a country as diverse as ours, [the party] risks becoming irrelevant" if it pursues its present course.