With so many women running for Congress, 2018 will bring interesting and unfamiliar tensions.
For lots of American women, Election 2018 is starting to make us feel like we’re sugar-deprived kids walking into a gigantic candy story for the first time. Long resigned to choosing from a dreary array of navy blue suckers – or at best, opting for the one neglected pink lollipop in a sea of aquamarine – some of us are being asked to choose not just which candidate we want to vote for, but which woman.
Arizona offers the perfect example. As the New York Times reported on April 10, it’s there that “a surge of female activists and candidates is reshaping policy debates and campaign conversations up and down the ballot.”
Among the key races in the Grand Canyon State is a contest for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake.
On one side are three Republicans, two of them women: U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot; and Kelli Ward, a hard-right politician who served in the state Senate.
On the other side, the leading Democratic candidate is U.S. Rep. Krysten Sinema, who’s running against one other woman and several men. Political pundits expect the November general election to see Sinema facing off against either McSally or Ward.
Another hot race in the desert is pitting Republican Debbie Lesko, whose avid support of Donald Trump helped her outpace 11 male GOP competitors in first-round voting, against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician and community leader who is seeking office for the first time. They’re competing in an April 24 special election to replace Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned following a #MeToo-prompted sexual harassment scandal.
Even when it’s just a one woman-one man race, the gender question looms large. Take Tennessee’s GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, now running to replace the retiring Sen. Bob Corker in Washington, D.C.’s upper house. Corker wavered in recent months on his retirement decision, forcing GOP fundraisers and endorsers to hold off on announcing their support for Blackburn’s campaign. That enabled her Democratic opponent, former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to get a jumpstart, and some public polls now show him in the lead.
For Tennessee voters who’d like to see more women in office but who want to send a message to Trump and the GOP, they’ll have to choose between their desire to elect more women and their opposition to the current power structure in the nation’s capital.
Therein lies the rub.
We women won’t win any points for our advocacy of equal opportunity if we vote for a woman just because she’s female. I’d argue that we are obligated to vote for the best candidate, the strongest feminist – even if that person happens to be a man. (And yes, men can be feminists, too: they need only believe that all people deserve equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law to earn the label.)
Lauren Underwood, a Democrat running for Congress from Illinois’ 14th District, seems to understand the importance of threading that political needle. In a March 28 interview on NPR, she explained that, “our community has never elected a woman to Congress, ever. The only people that have ever come out of our district are middle-aged, white men. And so I think that there’s just an interest in having a different voice represent our community now. And the fact that I am a millennial woman of color is very different.”
But “different” isn’t enough, she continued. “If I was a woman who had a values misalignment with my community, I wouldn’t be successful.”
That seems to be the concern among Democratic activists in California’s 25th Congressional district, as well, where Hillary Clinton won by more than 6 percent and the Democratic Party deems the district flippable.
Two women are among the three top contenders for the Democratic nod in the district, in what is likely to become a GOP-versus-Democratic November general election. (California has open primary voting, which sometimes means two Democrats or two Republicans compete in the general. In the 25th this year, though, the only Republican on the ballot in June is the incumbent Rep. Steve Knight.)
Most of the local Democratic clubs and the California Democratic Party voted “no endorsement” for the primary rather than playing favorites among a group of credible competitors. But several Southern California women’s organizations jumped in early to endorse Katie Hill, before word spread about her more centrist stances on issues of importance to Democrats – including healthcare, immigrant rights and gun safety regulation.
Democrats in the district are now struggling to square their party’s progressive momentum with the importance of fielding a candidate who appeals to more than just their own base. They see that, while Hill’s positions may not mesh perfectly with the direction of the platform, they might appeal to the independents who could ensure a November victory. In a historically red district, Hill’s makeup may in fact be what is needed to win in November – while being far less ideal for voters focused on women’s issues. The question has sparked some touchy discussions, but local Democrats seem determined to balance their concerns with their determination to flip the district.
And, while that March 28 NPR broadcast suggested that voters tend to favor female candidates on topics such as education and health care – issues that typically tilt Democratic – it also reported that, “party is by far more important to voters than gender,” with 90 percent of voters relying on party ID to make their final decision.
Gender still can matter at the margins – among that 10 percent of voters who don’t choose based on party affiliation. And in a year when 84 percent of Democratic women told a January CBS News poll that “more women in political office would make the country better,” it’s also self-evident that our country would be even better served if every one of the women we elect is also the best person for the job.
That may be why women like Mary Wilson (a Democratic House candidate running in Texas’ 21st Congressional district) work hard to weave one message into their comments at every campaign event: “I want you to vote for me because I’m a qualified female candidate, and we need more qualified women in Congress.”
Or, as @Seize_the_Pants tweeted on April 9, “It’s wonderful that so many women are running for office. But we need the right women in office. More Tammy Duckworths and less Joni Ernsts.”
My thoughts exactly.