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?
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.