In the GOP, female candidates blaze a liberating but difficult path forward

In the GOP, female candidates blaze a liberating but difficult path forward
© Getty Images

Women face unique, and often unspoken, challenges when running for office. Female politicians contend with outdated notions of how women ought to behave, sometimes enduring harsh public criticism, of themselves and their families, for deviating from narrow, socially prescribed roles. Male officials are held up as authorities on key issues such as jobs, trade and the economy. And particularly for Republican women, insufficient campaign funding is the factor that most deters them from seeking office, and can derail those who do.

Recent political and social developments have empowered more women, in both parties, to emerge as viable contenders, some because of widespread backlash to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE’s policies and his history with women. Many voters regard female candidates as better-equipped to solve problems that require empathy, such as health care reform, disparities in access to education, the opioid epidemic, and the separation of detained immigrant children from their families. The White House has brought each of these issues to the forefront in 2018, and women candidates have leveraged them as discussion points to great advantage, including in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Heightened attention to issues such as sexual harassment and school violence has further driven momentum in favor of women candidates, who some believe may have a more personal understanding of these problems. When current events favor women’s expertise, women candidates have a leg up in connecting with voters with a greater sense of authority. Voters also may believe that female candidates carry less liability than men. In the #MeToo era, male politicians are being held accountable for allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and worse, and these charges have devastating consequences for the careers of long-tenured officeholders and rising stars alike.


The combined surge in visibility and authenticity has created a pathway for women of both parties to garner more attention from funders, including state and national political organizations and committees who, at their own peril, often ignore voices of female majority of voters. However, for Republican women, this pathway is both liberating and difficult at the same time.

A key barrier to electoral success is the constraint of traditional role expectations. The 1950s may have been more than six decades ago, but many conservatives still subliminally subscribe to judgments regarding a woman’s ability to become a respected professional while maintaining her family role.

Coverage of Minnesota's first all-female U.S. Senate race often refers to GOP nominee Karin Housley as the wife of National Hockey League head coach Phil Housley, rather than highlighting her own successes as a state senator and real estate businesswoman. In 2014, Leslie Rutledge became the first woman and first Republican to be elected Arkansas attorney general. This summer, in the middle of her reelection campaign, she and her husband welcomed their first child. At the polls this fall, will voters trust her to continue to carry out the duties of her office, or will they vote as though she has an obligation to be a stay-at-home mom? This judgment is often levied on female candidates with growing families, but not their male counterparts.

In addition to being qualified, knowledgeable and skilled at connecting with voters, female Republican candidates must have the money required to run and win. This is not an easy feat, given most GOP donors are male and many show a propensity for backing businessmen with years of experience in the C-suite. Such donors often assume that female CEOs who run for office, such as Meg Whitman (eBay), who ran for governor of California, and Carly Fiorina (HP), who ran for president, could translate their corporate experience into electoral success, which didn't happen.

Instead, women GOP candidates in statewide races typically start out behind the curve, needing to solicit millions of dollars in campaign contributions to fund get-out-the-vote efforts, travel costs, support staff, coffee klatches, and every last brochure, mailer and advertisement needed to get the word out.

Struggling to raise early funding is a common roadblock for female GOP candidates, and this was especially true in the pre-Trump era. In 2014, Rutledge won a tough primary campaign with limited resources. Since taking office, she has gained visibility because of her law enforcement achievements and her ability to communicate and cooperate: she has held 300 roundtables and visited all 75 Arkansas counties in each of her four years in office. According to the most recent reporting, Rutledge has nearly 20 times more money for the November election than her Democratic opponent.

Wisconsin’s Leah Vukmir beat a much better-funded male opponent to win the Republican nod for U.S. Senate this month. The key to her success? Old-fashioned ground work and keeping her attention on what matters most to voters: the issues they want resolved in Washington. Vukmir covered all 72 Wisconsin counties, traveling 82,000 miles to meet Republicans where they live, listen to their concerns, and ask for their votes. Party endorsements, including one from House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party Biden fires back at Sanders on Social Security Warren now also knocking Biden on Social Security MORE, were instrumental in her surprise win.

This year, GOP women are overcoming many of longstanding electoral challenges by rewriting the conservative campaign playbook. The path forward may be best described in the words of another notable conservative female politician, Margaret Thatcher: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Dora Kingsley Vertenten, Ph.D., is a professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and CEO of Trenton West, a research consulting firm. She has advised governors, attorneys general and other statewide constitutional officeholders, and has participated in six Republican Party presidential nominating conventions. Follow her on Twitter @DoctorDora.