National News

13 Questions About Women and the Midterms

Posted November 6, 2018 10:30 a.m. EST

Conventional wisdom on women and politics goes like this:

— Women must pile up credentials because voters see men as more qualified.

— Women are trusted on issues like education, health care and children; men on national security, crime and defense.

— It’s harder for female candidates to be seen as “likable” compared to men.

— And women with children must reassure voters they can still do their jobs.

But the 2018 election season has raised new questions about gender and power that could affect the outcome Tuesday for the record numbers of women seeking office. Here are a few of those questions that might reshape conventional wisdom about women and politics.

1. Will male candidates pay a political price for insulting women (if they’re not Donald Trump)?

Once, it was political poison to demean women — as Rick Lazio found in his infamous 2000 Senate debate with Hillary Clinton.

But after the 2016 presidential election, who knows?

This year, Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., is trailing his Democratic opponent, Angie Craig, in a suburban Minneapolis district, dogged in part by crude remarks he made about women when he was a radio shock jock.

Yet Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is leading in the polls against his Democratic opponent, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, despite dismissive remarks about sexual assault.

2. Did #MeToo — and the uproar over the hearings on Justice Brett Kavanaugh — help Democrats or Republicans in the end?

At first, it seemed as if the cultural power of the #MeToo movement could help sweep some women into office.

In one viral campaign ad, Mary Barzee Flores, a Florida Democrat, told of a boss who assaulted her. M.J. Hegar, a Texas Democrat who went on to become a fighter pilot, told how her father threw her mother through a glass door.

But after the Kavanaugh hearings, Republicans charged that #MeToo went too far and that Democrats had smeared the new justice. Ron DeSantis, in a tight race for governor of Florida, lambasted Democrats, as did Duncan Hunter in California, who is under indictment for corruption-related charges.

Republicans believe they have fired up the ranks; Democrats hope the tactics will alienate suburban women and help them seize the House.

3. Will record numbers of women become governors?

It’s always been harder for a woman to become a governor than a member of Congress.

Some voters seem reluctant to trust women to be ultimate decision-makers, preferring them as legislators in the more stereotypical female role of collaboration.

Half the states have never elected a woman as governor. Even this year, several women were defeated in primaries.

But 16 women remain in races for governor (12 Democrats and four Republicans).

Four could become the first women elected in their states.

4. How did women military veterans campaign — and was it easier for voters to see them as leaders?

Women in leather bomber jackets posing next to fighter planes: These were rare images in past congressional races.

Now they are front and center in the campaigns of such military veterans as Republican Martha McSally in Arizona, Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Democrat Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, Democrat Elaine Luria in Virginia, Democrat Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania, and Hegar.

In a society that tends to associate leadership with men, military service can allow women to project strength without penalty.

“I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done,” McSally, a candidate for senator in Arizona, declared in a campaign video.

But she also gave a searing interview revealing she was raped by a high school coach.

McGrath recounted her childhood dream of flying fighter jets and her eventual bombing missions against al-Qaida and the Taliban. She balanced the bravado with a scene of her walking hand in hand with her husband and children.

5. How did motherhood play?

Motherhood — unfiltered, unapologetic, as a credential and selling point — took the stage as seldom before during this cycle. To much attention and minimal tut-tutting, candidates breast-fed babies in their campaign videos.

Liuba Grechen Shirley, trying to oust longtime Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., touted her successful fight to use campaign funds to pay for child care as an example of how she would stand up for the average working American — now assumed to include working mothers.

6. Does the campaign playbook change when women run against each other?

One trend is already clear — women can punch hard at each other but not get tarred by sexist accusations of “catfight.”

In the Arizona Senate race, rated a tossup, McSally has accused her opponent, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, of treason. Sinema’s most recent ad accuses McSally of lying, saying she has “come unhinged” and is “morally bankrupt.”

In suburban Georgia, Rep. Karen Handel, a Republican, opposes abortion and tried to cut funds to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. She was the target of campaign ads by her Democratic opponent, Lucy McBath, accusing her of denying women control of their own bodies. Handel countered by listing her record fighting human trafficking.

7. Can women win without conventional political credentials?

Democrat Jahana Hayes, running in a solidly Democratic Connecticut district, was a teacher of the year and would be the first black member of Congress from the state.

Democrat Kim Schrier is a pediatrician facing a former state senator, Dino Rossi, in Washington’s 8th District. And Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who worked as a bartender but became a community organizer, scored the biggest upset of the season by unseating the longtime incumbent Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair.

8. How many women of color might win seats in Congress, and how might they change the establishment?

There are 84 women of color running for Congress this year — a remarkable 42 percent increase from just two years ago. A Times analysis found that 58 percent of congressional candidates were white men, the lowest percentage in the past four elections.

The majority of these women are Democrats, and several, such as Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, toppled long-standing incumbents from their own parties.

And many are poised to mark historic firsts, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who are Muslim-American, and Sharice Davids of Kansas, who would be the first lesbian Native American in Congress.

9. In midterm elections cast as a verdict on the president, which groups of women might support him and which won’t?

The statistic became a badge of pride or infamy, depending on your political persuasion: 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. In fact, more accurate polling data linked to voter lists suggests the percentage was closer to 47 percent for Trump, 45 percent for Hillary Clinton.

Much like the vaunted soccer mom, the suburban woman has become the Holy Grail for Democrats. Will women in suburban districts that usually elect Republicans vote for Democrats this time around? Will independent women, who broke late in the election for Trump, pull the Democratic lever? Will non-college-educated women (who live in suburbs as well as rural areas), the majority of Trump’s female base, stand by him?

10. Why did relatively few Republican women run in this cycle?

According to figures tallied by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, 428 women ran for Congress or governor as Democrats, compared to 162 Republicans. Of these, 210 Democratic women remain nominees, compared to 63 Republican women.

Shock and anger at Trump’s election unleashed a surge of Democratic activism, so it’s no wonder the figures are lopsided. By contrast, the tea party movement in 2010 propelled many Republican women into advocacy and public office.

Republicans shun identity politics and, unlike Democrats, don’t tend to tell pollsters they believe it’s important that more women run for office. Surveys of Republican men and women alike show that gender equality is far less central for Republican voters.

11. Did black women again prove decisive in registering and turning out voters of color?

Black women as voters and organizers were essential to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama Senate race. The Democratic Party and a bevy of grass-roots groups have poured millions into turning out voters of color in key elections, including Stacey Abrams’ bid in Georgia to become the first black female governor in the country and Andrew Gillum’s candidacy to become the first black governor of Florida.

According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House races in the South where black women’s votes could help sway the outcome include:

— Georgia’s 7th, pitting Carolyn Bourdeaux against Rob Woodall, a tightening race where black voters make up 20 percent of the electorate.

— Florida’s 18th, where Lauren Baer is challenging Brian Mast.

— North Carolina’s 9th, where Dan McCready is challenging Mark Harris.

12. Will more women be elected to state legislatures?

All eyes may be fixed on Congress, but, especially with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, states will become even more critical laboratories and battlegrounds for policy like abortion rights, criminal justice and Medicaid expansion.

Democrats are trying to wrest control of state legislatures from Republicans who built robust local organizations. Women have been a part of that strategy. They now make up 40 percent of the state Legislature in Republican-controlled Arizona and 39 percent in Democratic-controlled Vermont; their share could increase in other states.

13. Is emphasizing being a woman a successful campaign strategy?

Some candidates dialed it up to 11, doubling down on their credentials as women. Campaign strategists warn that it’s important to make an explicit link between life experience and policy.

Democrat Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama, devoted part of her launch video to Maryland’s absence of women in public office; over a shot of her breast-feeding her baby, she said: “Well, I’m no man. I’m a mom, I’m a woman and I want to be your next governor.”

She lost her primary, but Dana Nessel, a Democratic candidate for Michigan’s attorney general, is still in the running. She didn’t mince words in an ad pledging to prosecute sexual harassment: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”