The Republican women running for top government offices across the United States this year largely represent the old-guard demographics that have defined the party for decades — that is to say, they are mostly white and mostly middle-aged. However, newer, more diverse faces and subtle shifts indicate the potential for change on the horizon.
Even so, regardless of race and generation, the women on the ballot are united in their dedication to traditional, “establishment” conservative values. And as politicians, the populist bluster of their party’s new standard-bearer and presidential nominee is near impossible to find.
Our examination of the Republican field of 2016 female candidates comes as the GOP National Convention chugs along in Cleveland, Ohio. Thousands have gathered for the event, where business mogul and former reality television star Donald Trump was on Tuesday officially named the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
But while much of the nation has been captivated by the dramatic twists and turns of the presidential race — and this week, the theatrics of the convention and its rather unconventional roster of speakers — House, Senate and state elections have also begun to heat up.
The results of those races could have a significant impact on the American political process going forward. In particular, majority control of the Senate — and perhaps even the House — is at stake, and with it the next president’s ability to pass legislation.
As a part of our ongoing project examining the role of women in the 2016 U.S. election cycle, we scoured the nation for female candidates in these crucial races. Explore our interactive map of candidates from all parties, complete with individual bios.
We focused on women whose candidacies have survived party primaries for House seats, all 435 of which are on the line. We also looked at the women pursuing the 34 out of 100 Senate seats and 12 out of 50 governorships in play this year.
On the Republican side, we identified 24 House candidates who will go on to the general election, as well as six Senate candidates and three women currently running for governor. (Primaries to determine party candidates have not yet been held in every state.)
Looking closely at their biographies and platforms, we uncovered several themes — both in regards to what these women collectively value as policy makers, and how they present themselves to voters as individuals. The combined result is a landscape of female Republican candidates that’s equal parts maternal and traditional — and also poised, if elected, to carry forward the values and positions that have long defined the GOP (but less so its renegade presidential nominee).
American as Apple Pie
Family photos new and old adorn the biographies of Illinois Congressional candidate Joan McCarthy, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Missouri Gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway. “Wife” and “mom” come first in formal introductions of Maryland Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga and South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem.
“I’m a real Marylander, wife, mom and grandmother, and I’m running to be Maryland’s next United States Senator,” is the first line of Szeliga’s biography, before she details her years of experience as an entrepreneur and lawmaker. Szeliga faces something of an uphill battle, since Maryland tends to lean blue, yet she leads with her identity as a matriarch.
Among older candidates especially, being a mother is in the foreground of their public personae, followed by their professional accomplishments. Younger Republican candidates, in contrast, place much less emphasis on their family lives — even those with husbands and children.
That’s for good reason, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. By playing up their families, women with older children tap into the popular “family values” theme. “If the kids are younger and still at home, it can backfire, because people start to wonder how you will take care of your kids. They will become a part of the conversation.”
Meanwhile for men, she notes, it’s a non-issue across the board. “Pictures with your kids, your wife, your golden retriever — it’s all on your brochure, your campaign website,” she says. “And it works really well. It humanizes them, makes them seem like a more established member of the community with a stake in the future.”
Of course, traditional notions of gender roles and family values are central to the Republican Party’s belief structure and policy agenda — a fact that also highlights a double standard in this year’s election cycle, upon examination of (forgive the pun) the elephant in the room.
Female Candidates in Trump’s GOP
On paper and in his rhetoric, Trump appears to be in lock-step on family issues with the party he now formally sits atop, emphasizing old-fashioned notions of masculinity and femininity while playing up close relationships with his children.
However, he has a troubled relationship with female voters, due in part to sexist comments he has made about everyone from female celebrities and journalists to his own daughter. His rocky marital history — Melania is his third wife — has also created a rift between him and some female Republicans.
The numbers reflect this — numerous reports and polls indicate a growing alienation between Trump and women voters of all parties. Among Republican women, 49 percent view Trump favorably, while 46 percent view him unfavorably, according to a recent Gallup poll. Compare that to the 80 percent of Republican women who viewed former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — he of the “binders full of women” — favorably in 2012.
Walsh notes that reluctance to embrace Trump is a party-wide matter that transcends gender lines — revealed most recently in his difficulties recruiting speakers for this year’s convention. But his controversial and unlikely ascent to the top of the party adds to a larger “women problem” for the GOP.
“The Republican Party talks about wanting to be a more diverse party and to include more women, but at the same time they actively resist the process of identity politics,” she says. While the party expresses interest in addressing issues that impact women (and minorities), she explains, they have not successfully brought representatives of those groups into the fold.
There are hints of change among the youngest of the pack of Republican candidates, at least in regards to racial diversity — for example, Congressional candidate Mia Love of Utah, who is black, and Sue Googe, an Asian woman running for a House seat in North Carolina, among a handful of other women of color.
But change is slow to come, and for now, a significant imbalance of men and women on the Republican side of the aisle persists. Additionally, though Trump may be a divisive figure in and of himself, party unity on values and issues largely remains.
Ideological Ties that Bind
Traditional family values aren’t the only ways in which 2016’s women candidates embody the establishment take on what it means to be a Republican. Their campaign platforms largely spotlight the tenets of American conservatism.
For example, talk of increasing border security is a primary focus for many of them, as are tax cuts as a solution to local, state and national economic woes. Diminishing the role of government in education is a recurring theme, too, along with opposition to the educational standard known as Common Core.
There is also a focus on care for military veterans — which, it should be noted, several of these women are themselves. Cat Ping, who is running for Congress in Indiana’s seventh district, enlisted in the National Guard in 1980 and remained active in the military for decades. That experience was clearly formative, and influential in her advocacy for increased veteran support, particularly providing employment opportunities.
Vocal backing of police officers, often highlighted in responses to the recent police-involved killings that have dominated the national news, also take center stage. Concerns for America’s farmers were also expressed by numerous candidates.
Other shared values include an emphasis on protecting Second Amendment gun rights — and preserving the Constitution in general — and firm opposition to both legal abortion and same-sex marriage (these women spoke more staunchly and frequently against the former than the latter).
Small business ownership is another recurring theme. Quite a few of the candidates were, or still are, entrepreneurs, having started up ventures on their own or alongside their husbands. These candidates often weave their small business experiences into overall identities as advocates for Main Street denizens and defenders of the proverbial “little guy.”
Take Tonia Khouri, a Congressional candidate in Illinois, who started a home-services company with her husband, Joe. On her campaign website, she links this experience to her pledge to support entrepreneurs.
“As a small business owner myself, I see firsthand how 63 percent of our net new jobs are created by small businesses. It is important to support our nation’s job creators,” she says. “We need to get government out of the way and allow American ingenuity in the marketplace to put Americans back to work again.”
The entrepreneurs in the bunch aren’t the only champions of Main Street, however. In fact, almost all the women cast themselves as small-town, wholesome and, as previously mentioned, motherly figures — with good reason.
Personality as Strategy
Research shows that epitomizing such qualities is a key part of playing the game for women in politics, though it’s something of a balancing act between those and other attributes.
A team at SUNY Stony Brook examined the campaigns of women candidates in multiple parties, and found that traits perceived as “masculine” — decisiveness, for example — make candidates seem more competent than “feminine” traits such as warmth and effusiveness. Meanwhile, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s 15-year study of female gubernatorial candidates showed that “qualifications and likability are closely linked for women candidates” more so than for their male counterparts.
Indeed, campaigning can be a minefield to navigate for women, who must strike a careful balance between appearing both approachable and competent.
And Republican women can face an additional hazard. Since the GOP electorate’s ideological shift rightward in 2012, Republican women have had to tout strong conservative credentials to win, which has often meant that “moderate women can’t make it through a primary,” Walsh says. “They either don’t run at all, or they get beat in the primaries. That’s why in the general election there are so many fewer women on the Republican side.”
The result of this shows up in the stats, she points out. In 2014, there was stagnation in the number of women Republicans in Congress. “They are still stuck at about 10 percent of all Republican members of Congress. On the Democrat side, [women are] a third.”
In addition to the Republican female field’s small size (which has even waned since past election cycles), this dynamic may explain the uniformly conservative themes among Conservative women candidates — themes that, depending on who wins on Nov. 8, will affect how the nation is governed in the years ahead.
The High Stakes of Election 2016
One thing that’s clear is the importance of the races being decided by voters this fall, from the presidency on down. The Senate is being watched especially closely this year, because the Republicans could lose majority control to the Democrats.
“What’s interesting about this is it could end up being that the largest races with women in them could make that shift,” Walsh says.
Races in battleground states like Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Hampshire could pave the way for a fundamental shift in the balance of power and, thus, policy decisions going forward. And in several of those states, Republican women are vying for the very House and Senate seats that could turn the tide — for example, Khouri of Illinois and Rep. Barbara Foxx of North Carolina’s fifth district.
“If Trump were elected in November, and if he were to have control of a Republican Senate and House, much more of his agenda — whatever it is — could get through,” Walsh says. “Those [battleground] races are hugely important to the future direction of this country.”
“Women in those races could make a big difference — one way or the other.”