The Magazine

Women and the GOP

No problem.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Sitting atop Sessions's list of top-tier young candidates is Martha Roby in the 2nd District of Alabama. She's a Montgomery city councilmember and mother of two, taking on Bobby Bright, a Blue Dog precariously perched in this right-leaning district.

Sessions also touts Nan Hayworth in the 19th District of New York, a well-funded retired ophthalmologist and mother of two married to another doctor, who wants to concentrate on "restoring fiscal sanity to the federal government," she told her local paper.

In Florida's 24th District, a right-leaning seat that went blue in 2008, there were at one point three Republican women vying for the party's nomination.

The message of political newcomers like Hayworth is one Sessions thinks can "widen the bandwidth" of the party's message.

"We're seeing just a lot of people sitting around their tables saying, 'Something's wrong,' " Sessions said. "And then mom and dad look at each other, and sometimes mom says 'I'm gonna do something about it.' "

Senate races boast five high-profile GOP women candidates for 2010: Sue Lowden in Nevada, Linda -McMahon in Connecticut, Jane Norton in Colorado, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and Carly Fiorina in California. As leaders in their communities, business, and politics, several of these women are leading the polls in the early going, and have experience speaking to fellow women, sometimes in powerful ways.

Lowden, for instance, is a well-known face in Nevada for her 10-year stint as a reporter and anchor on local news in the '70s and '80s--a career that made her a symbol of the working woman's life and choices, particularly when she anchored the news through her pregnancies.
"It has nothing to do with politics, necessarily. People remember that," she said. "[Women] say, 'I feel like I know you. I watched you growing up. I remember when you had your kids.' "

Some of these candidates face primary challenges, some from the right, and some may lose. This does not constitute a "women problem."

While most Republican operatives acknowledge the party needs to extend its reach to more women and minorities, conservatives are loath to turn primaries into a race-and-gender bean count, just because an open and fair process might mean a white man gets the nod.

Fiorina illustrated the dangers of treading too close to this line when she told a group of conservative journalists that she'd make a better challenger to Senator Boxer than her competitor for the nomination, Chuck Devore, because she's a woman.

"With all due respect and deep affection for white men--I am married to one--" Fiorina said, "but [Barbara Boxer] knows how to beat them in California. She has done it over and over and over."

She was knocked for playing the identity politics card on a conservative challenger.

Sessions is more circumspect about what he's looking for in a candidate. "We're after a community leader and we're after someone who has thoughtful articulation to include everybody when they speak," he said. "Does that mean a woman against a woman? Hey, if we find one.  .  .  .  My evaluation is our women can speak to a wider group of people."

In the liberal mind, and in media coverage, the GOP woman seems to exist only as a parody of Sarah Palin--all bumpkin, no brains--or as the fictionalization of Dede Scozzafava--all centrist, no cynicism. Both are caricatures of liberals' own invention.

Without resorting to them, we could talk about Meg Whitman running for governor in California, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee warning Congress about the costs and results of her state's TennCare health care program, or Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington prominently pushing the Republicans' no-cost job-creation plan in Congress. Within two hours of Rep. Brian Baird's retirement announcement last week, a former aide to McMorris Rodgers turned state senator had announced she'd enter the race to replace him. Despite her youth, 31-year-old Jaime Herrera's experience and growing political base have Democrats worried.

The Republican party has work to do, especially with single women, but polling suggests women will be willing to listen to the GOP in 2010, and the GOP is working to speak to them, with the help of women in its ranks. The truth is that neither party can afford to treat women as simplistically as the "women problem" narrative does.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.