In early November, Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida accused House Republicans of giving women "back-of-the-hand treatment" during a parliamentary dust-up over a health care debate.
Her ridiculous rhetoric, about what amounted to a heated argument, happened to coincide with the media blitz of newly ordained press darling Dede Scozzafava, playing the role of mistreated moderate woman ousted from the Republican party by rabid conservatives because of her views on social issues.
And thus a storyline was born. The Politico's coverage led the way, under the headline, "The GOP's women problem":
Conservatives say they pushed Dede Scozzafava out of the House race in New York's 23rd District a week ago because of her left-of-Republican social views--and not because she is a woman. But the growing schism between the Republican party's ascendant right wing and its shrinking moderate core has clear gender undertones.
When did you stop beating your promising, reasonable, moderate female candidates? Hmm?
The storyline relies on a misunderstanding of Scozzafava, willful ignorance of the recent behavior of women voters, and denial of the GOP's 2010 candidate field.
Scozzafava's ouster had little to do with her sex and a lot to do with the fact that she was a "moderate" Republican only if you believe "moderates" are endorsed by Markos Zuniga of Daily Kos, support card-check and the stimulus, work closely with ACORN-entangled liberal advocacy groups, and are funded primarily by Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union.
Scozzafava is far from the model for reasonable, moderate Republican women. She's the kind of woman who calls the cops on a reporter for asking her policy questions. But she's the woman liberals wish represented Republicans--because she's a liberal herself, which is why she became an improbable fetish of the Fourth Estate.
If the media had cared to look beyond the fluky, three-way race in NY-23 for national implications, they could have considered women voters in battleground Virginia.
On November 3, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell won women by eight points, 54-46, against Democrat Creigh Deeds. A year before, Obama had won women by seven points; in his historic campaign to turn the state blue, he relied largely on the educated, affluent, suburban vote McDonnell would recover for the GOP. This information was obscured under the CNN headline, "Male, rural, suburban votes boost McDonnell."
McDonnell's edge among women--27 points among white women--is all the more astonishing given the particular line of attack Deeds employed throughout the campaign, with the help of his devoted oppo researchers at the Washington Post.
When the Post discovered a thesis McDonnell wrote at evangelical Regent University in 1989, the attack was on. In the thesis, McDonnell had controversial takes on working women (federal tax credits for child care were "detrimental to the family"), contraception outside of marriage, and marriage (government policies should favor traditional families and make divorce more difficult).
McDonnell released a statement saying his views had changed. He pointed out that his record in government did not jibe with the '89 policy prescriptions, and lauded his working wife and two daughters, one of whom served in Iraq as a platoon leader in 2005. Then he moved on.
The Post and Deeds didn't. A Northern Virginia paper, the News and Messenger, accused Deeds of making "McDonnell's thesis the main talking point of his campaign, almost to the exclusion of anything else." His ads leaned heavily on it, culminating in "Why Did You?"--a parodic parade of women pleading with the camera and McDonnell, "Why? Why? WHY?"
In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie lost women by 5 points, but shrunk McCain's '08 losing margin by 12 points.
The exit polls reveal a model for speaking to women voters in 2010: "Here was a guy [McDonnell] who was a conservative, who was not afraid to speak to that," said RNC chairman Michael Steele. "But what he did was he applied it to the issues that were important to the people in his state. He didn't need to run away from it."
Representative Pete Sessions, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has recruited 26 women to run in 2010, agrees.
"The economy and jobs and debt dominate, not just the political landscape, but what people are talking about around their own tables," he said, which was what McDonnell stuck to while Deeds attacked. "The [message] that worked in New Jersey was corruption."
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.