- Win McNamee/Getty Images
- Three congresswomen – Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada – are strong contenders for Senate seats in 2018. Sinema and Rosen, both moderate Democrats, are challenging the most vulnerable incumbents: two Republicans who have been critical of Trump. And Blackburn represents the rise of ultraconservative GOP women running for elected office.
In the months leading up to last year’s US elections, many predicted that 2016 would be the next “Year of the Woman.”
The October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, the thinking went, in which Donald Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women, would call attention to gender disparities in politics in much the same way Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, did in 1992, a year that saw significant gains for women in public office.
Instead, female candidates came up short. As they have for the past few decades, they made small, but steady, gains in the Senate in 2016, their numbers risings to 21 from 20, with the number of female senators of color growing to four from one.
And in 2018, three women are in strong positions to pick up Senate seats, two of them in states that have never elected a female senator.
Courting swing voters in the Sun Belt
Two of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2018 are GOP incumbents: Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Heller, who has distanced himself from Trump on immigration and healthcare policy, will be challenged by the first-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, a computer scientist and synagogue president. And Flake, one of the GOP’s most vocal Trump critics, will face Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a gay two-term Democrat with a compelling life story.
Both incumbents are also facing primary challenges by more-conservative candidates, each of whom is backed by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who has vowed to challenge nearly every incumbent Republican senator in 2018 in an effort to undermine the GOP establishment.
Sinema and Rosen are banking on those primary races to move the incumbent Republicans further to the right and alienate swing voters.
Lucinda Guinn, the vice president for campaigns at Emily’s List, a political action committee supporting female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, told Business Insider that as Heller and Flake were pressured to stake out more conservative positions, they would “get more and more out of touch with their states, with those they represent, than they already are.”
Emily’s List was quick to endorse Rosen and Sinema and has already begun campaigning against their opponents, launching a series of attack ads on Heller in August.
The rise of ‘hardcore’ conservative women
In Tennessee, the veteran congresswoman Marsha Blackburn is running as a Trump-supporting, far-right conservative to replace the retiring Sen. Bob Corker, a prominent Republican who recently broke with Trump.
In an October campaign ad announcing her Senate bid, Blackburn sold herself as a strong Trump backer – a “hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative” who is “politically incorrect and proud of it.”
Danielle Thomsen, a professor at Syracuse University who wrote a book this year on partisan polarization in Congress, has found that Republican women elected to Congress have become more conservative (along with the rest of their party) since the 1980s and that their numbers have declined in recent years, while Democratic women have made steady gains in both the House and the Senate. Just five of the 52 Republicans in the Senate this year are women, compared with 16 of the 46 Democrats.
Blackburn – along with Kelli Ward, Flake’s conservative primary challenger – epitomizes the rightward ideological shift among Republican women elected to Congress over the past several years.
In her book on partisan polarization in Congress, Thomsen used Blackburn, who has been in Congress since 2002, as a benchmark for ideology and found that from 1980 to 1992, just 6% of incoming Republican members of Congress were more conservative than Blackburn. But from 2006 to 2010, 42% were as conservative as or more conservative than the Tennessee congresswoman.
Among female candidates, Thomsen found that ultraconservative candidates were 20 times as likely to run for office as moderates were.
- Alex Wong/Getty Images
Avoiding identity politics
In her memoir on the 2016 campaign, “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton wrote about how her Democratic campaign struggled to find a sweet spot in its messaging around gender and the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy as the first female presidential nominee for a major US party. She wrote that key demographics, including undecided voters in swing states, didn’t respond well to her focus on her gender.
“Many of our core supporters were very excited by the idea of finally breaking the glass ceiling,” Clinton wrote. “But some younger women didn’t see what the big deal was. And many undecided women in battleground states didn’t want to hear about it at all. Some were afraid that by leaning into the fact that I was a woman, my campaign would end up turning away men – a disheartening but all-too-real possibility.”
Some predict that Blackburn, Sinema, and Rosen will avoid talking explicitly about their gender during their Senate campaigns.
Even though Blackburn, if elected, would be the first female senator from Tennessee, she mentions her gender only in passing in her nearly three-minute campaign ad.
After quoting President Andrew Jackson – “One man with courage makes a majority” – Blackburn adds, “Courage comes in both genders, and I’m running for the US Senate because I’ll fight every day to make our Republican majority act like one.”
But Blackburn’s “100 percent pro-life” position – what she calls “pro-baby and pro-woman” – places her as an outspoken activist in a highly gendered debate around reproductive rights.
Notably, Blackburn touts her work investigating Planned Parenthood following the release of secretly filmed videos purporting to show healthcare providers discussing the sale of fetal tissue for scientific research.
“I fought Planned Parenthood, and we stopped the sale of baby body parts, thank God,” she says in the ad.
The claim is manifestly untrue – the investigation never found that Planned Parenthood engaged in the sale of fetal tissue – and it prompted Twitter to block the ad from promotion on the platform, sparking an outcry among conservatives who accused the “liberal elite” and Silicon Valley of censoring their speech.
Because Simena and Rosen will target both Trump supporters and swing voters, their campaigns are likely to avoid discussing glass ceilings or “playing the woman card,” as Trump accused Clinton of doing in 2016.
“They need to gain voters that are sometimes turned off by ‘identity politics,'” Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told Business Insider.
But, Dittmar added, regardless of whether Sinema, for example, discusses her sexuality during the campaign, it will play a role in her race.
Sinema, who would be the first female senator from Arizona, makes no mention of her gender in the ad announcing her candidacy, which focuses on her life story – she lived in an abandoned gas station for three years as a child – and a positive, uniting message reminiscent of Clinton’s “Stronger Together” tagline.
And while evidence abounds that Democratic and progressive women are more politically engaged than at any time in recent history, they are not the voters who will make the difference in Arizona and Nevada.
“They can’t win on the Democratic progressive women who are super engaged and want to see more women in politics,” Dittmar said.