GOP Seeks Diversity by Focusing on Women

Posted June 9, 2010 at 6:23pm

Tuesday’s primary results point to an emergence of Republican female candidates for the Senate and other high offices, emboldening strategists who want to diversify a mostly homogeneous party that has consistently lagged behind Democrats in support from female voters.

With the decisive victories of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in California and former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle in Nevada, as many as five Republican women could be their party’s nominees in the 15 Senate races that Roll Call currently considers highly competitive.

Former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is likely to win her primary in Connecticut, while former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton have more competitive primaries. Democrats are defending seats in four of the five races.

Aside from bringing their party within striking distance of a Senate majority, Republicans hope that high-profile campaigns of female candidates will also burnish the party’s image and narrow a long-standing gender gap. A Gallup poll in late April showed that men prefer a Republican candidate for Congress to a Democratic candidate 51 percent to 41 percent, while women prefer the Democrat 48 percent to 41 percent.

An uptick in GOP female candidates “is a strong net positive for us,” said Brian Walsh, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “When you’re trying to grow and expand the brand of the party nationally, having new faces and particularly working mothers, whether it’s Kelly Ayotte or self-made businesswomen like Carly Fiorina, I think that’s a really important part of our effort to expand outreach for the Republican Party.”

“Down the road, especially if several of these women candidates are successful, it helps with recruiting,” said one GOP strategist who is familiar with the campaigns of Republican female candidates. “Because when you’re going out and trying to recruit individuals and leaders within their community to run, it’s always good to have somebody that they feel close or can look up to or see themselves in when they’re deciding whether to make that decision.”

Democrats think Fiorina and Angle won Pyrrhic victories by staking out strongly conservative positions that were amenable to primary voters but will make them unelectable in November.

That Republicans could have as many as five female nominees in highly competitive Senate races is something of a novelty for the party. The GOP had only one nonincumbent female Senate nominee in 2008 — Christine O’Donnell, who lost by 30 points to now-Vice President Joseph Biden. In 2006, neither of the two Republican female nominees for Senate reached 40 percent of the vote.

The last Republican woman to first come to the Senate by election was Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) in 2002, and she lost her re-election bid two years ago to another woman, Democrat Kay Hagan.

When it comes to female representation in Congress, Republicans are eager to draw closer to parity with Democrats, who have significantly outperformed Republicans in electing women to Congress. As recently as 1996, there were five Democratic and four Republican female Senators; that ratio now is 13 Democrats to four Republicans.

That partisan imbalance could narrow in this election.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who was elected to the House in 1992’s “year of the woman” and moved over to the Senate six years later, is an underdog against Rep. John Boozman after only narrowly winning a runoff on Tuesday. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) is a slight favorite to win re-election, and Sen. Barbara Boxer will have a tough fight with Fiorina in what will be California’s first Senate race with two women as the major-party nominees.

Democrats hope that Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan can win an open seat this year.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is a shoo-in for re-election, as is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who has been concentrating on outreach to women and minorities in her role as vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Tuesday’s primaries also set up some key House and gubernatorial races in which women will be the nominees.

Like in California, voters in South Dakota will for the first time choose between two women in a statewide race for Congress. State Rep. Kristi Noem won a three-candidate Republican primary and will face Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

“That’s an interesting dynamic of this race. I’m sure it will be up for discussion, but ultimately I believe the campaign will focus around the issues. We’re living in a crisis period of time right now,” Noem said.

In California, former eBay executive Meg Whitman easily won her primary and is at least an even-money bet to become the first female governor of the nation’s largest state.

In South Carolina, state Rep. Nikki Haley nearly won the Republican primary outright and outpolled Rep. Gresham Barrett by better than a 2-to-1 ratio, putting her in a good position to win the June 22 runoff. Her election in November would be notable in part because South Carolina ranks dead last among the 50 states in the percentage of state legislators who are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

For many conservative female activists, though, the top goal is to unseat Boxer, who has never before faced a Republican woman.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said that her group is making Fiorina’s election a top priority. Fiorina’s landslide win in the primary “is a huge success already and an affirmation of our mission,” Dannenfelser said. “But to win [in November] will be a watershed for women for a long time running for office.”

Democratic groups seem aware of the uniqueness of a Boxer-Fiorina race and of Fiorina’s effort to try to peel off some female voters who previously backed Boxer.

EMILY’s List on Wednesday launched a website, womenforboxer.com, that is meant to burnish her image among female voters.

EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock described Boxer as “a fierce advocate for protecting women’s freedom and liberty” and someone who is “protecting women’s right to access health care.”

Democrats are also linking Fiorina to the most prominent Republican female politician in America: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was part of a 2008 Republican White House ticket that lost badly in California.

But Dannenfelser credited Palin as an archetype of conservative women who want to run for office.

“Everyone needs models,” she said. “Most people don’t want to be the first one to do it. And Sarah Palin really didn’t mind being the first one to do it at the level that she did.”