Women of the GOP hit an electoral speed bump

Aaron Guerrero Contributor
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A common story line this election year is the dramatic increase in the number of Republican women candidates, and by extension, GOP attempts to reach out to the traditionally Democratic constituency of women voters.

In primary battles this year, GOP women have left their mark like never before. Republicans have had fourteen women run for the U.S. Senate this year. In 2008, they had just three women pursuing a seat in the world’s greatest deliberative body. With respect to House races, the GOP had 94 women contend for seats, while in 2008 they had 46. And in gubernatorial races, Republicans had fourteen women vying for their states chief executive position, by comparison, they had zero in 2008.

Amid the flurry of new faces, some have stood out more than others, and if fortunate enough to win in November, they could become future stars on the national scene.

In South Carolina, gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley dazzled Tea Party and anti-establishment types with a fiscally conservative message and an equally compelling background. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, has conservatives both within the state and nationally gleeful over the prospect of her becoming the Palmetto State’s first female governor.

California has seen victories by a pair of former corporate executives. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman handily won the gubernatorial primary and is selling herself as an economic fixer-upper and an outsider who can shake up California’s stalemated political culture. And former Helwett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina survived a tough senate primary and is looking to unseat three-term incumbent and Democratic stalwart Barbara Boxer.

Though this election cycle may prove to be a watershed year with respect to the Republican Party and its relationship with women voters, some high profile GOP women have made an important political miscalculation, mistaking a heavy emphasis on gender as a legitimate substitute for running a substantive campaign.

Following last Tuesday’s primaries in Colorado, Connecticut, and Georgia, many within the press and political establishment scrambled for explanations and interpretations for each races outcome. But while they chalked up points for the effectiveness of Obama’s political machine in Colorado, and questioned the wisdom of Republicans in nominating more unorthodox senate candidates, they may have missed the fact that GOP women had an unusually bad night.

In the Georgia gubernatorial race, former secretary of state and freshly minted Mama Grizzly Karen Handel had for weeks embraced her gender, using it as a point of distinction between herself and a field crowded with men.

Her very first television ad noted “Three with iffy ethics,” showing pictures of her chief male rivals, “one who wears lipstick.”

Another ad had this line: “One carries a purse. The other carries baggage,” flashing to a picture of her runoff opponent, former congressman Nathan Deal, surrounded by bags of cash and unflattering headlines pertaining to ethics charges he faced during his time in congress.

For all the talk about lipstick and purses, Handel’s efforts to playfully highlight her gender did not pay dividends; she went on to lose to Deal last Tuesday.

But if gender was a key component to Handel’s candidacy, it became the central rationale for nominating former Lt. Governor Jane Norton in the Colorado senate primary.

When Norton’s opponent, Tea Party insurgent, Ken Buck was asked at a campaign stop why voters should support his candidacy, he quipped, “Because I do not wear high heels.”

The video taped incident quickly lead to Norton blasting her opponent for his remarks. Trailing in the polls, she pulled out all the stops, indicting Buck as someone who believed a woman’s presence was more fitting for a home than the United States Senate and producing campaign paraphernalia featuring a pink high heel next to the slogan “The Buck Stops Here.”

Like Handel, Norton’s more overt use of gender did not aid her cause, as she too fell in defeat this past Tuesday.

Both Handel and Norton’s losses, combined with the successes of other Republican women this election cycle, provide a glimpse into how the new union between GOP voters and women candidates is likely to fare in the months and years ahead.

First, GOP voters are quite open to women candidates and remain enthusiastic over their heavier participation in the political process. The rise of individuals like Haley, Whitman and Fiorina are verification of this.

Second, despite being heavily focused on economic issues, the Republican Party still maintains a strong distaste for identity politics, particularly if they’re of a grievous nature.

Third, other candidates should stick to the formula that has worked for other women within the GOP. Talk up your professional background or unique personal history, portray yourself as a political outsider, and above all else, largely avoid discussions on gender.

Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.