GOP Women, Sunday Papers

Sunday's papers included two interesting pieces on Republican women in this year's election. Since, as regular readers of this blog know, I obsessively cover this topic, I naturally have some thoughts.

The two articles are Susan Milligan's lead story in the Boston Globe, on "the emergence of women across the GOP field"; and a Ramesh Ponnuru op-ed in the New York Times on the rise of pro-life women candidates in the party.

Ponnuru, a senior editor at the National Review, is one of a group of youngish writers at that publication who tend toward the school of political thinking best classified as "idiocy." Nevertheless, his op-ed is worth considering, since it touches on the two big questions underlying the broader topic: Why are so few Republican women elected?, and, Does it Matter?

Ponnuru argues that it does matter -- that the lack of prominent pro-life women in office has put the pro-life movement at a disadvantage, because voters respond better to the pro-life message when it comes from women than from men. This is essentially the argument I made a year ago, about the GOP's disadvantage trying to oppose the Sonia Sotomayor nomination without prominent women in the party. I don't know if the theory is correct -- and I'm a little skeptical that it applies to the abortion issue -- but it's interesting to see a conservative making the argument.

Naturally, Ponnuru is thrilled at what he believes is newfound success of pro-life women running for high office as Republicans; he cites Sharron Angle, Carly Fiorina, Susanna Martinez, Nikki Haley, Kelly Ayotte, and Jane Norton. Of course, none of them have actually been elected yet. He also ignores Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon, to name two (essentially) pro-choice women having equal success despite the notoriously pro-life tilt of the GOP nominating process -- and of course the many pro-life women who have lost Republican primaries already this year.

It's certainly possible that the GOP's pro-life bias is a contributing factor in the dearth of elected women in the party. Perhaps there are proportionally few pro-life women interested in running for office; perhaps pro-life voters are prejudiced against voting for women; or perhaps general-election voters are less apt to vote for pro-life women than pro-life men on the GOP ticket. And it's possible that any or all of these hurdles may be less of a factor now, after the national spotlight has spent so much time on Sarah Palin, and to a lesser extent Michelle Bachmann and others.

Ponnuru doesn't address the latter two possibilities; he seems convinced that the problem lies solely in pro-life women failing, until now, to run for office. Ponnuru claims, without evidence, that "the number of pro-life women running for office has increased," and claims that this is because in the past, "pro-life women were more likely to be full-time homemakers," but "these days socially conservative women are likely to have careers, too," and thus be likely candidates for office.

I don't think that's quite right, but I do have similar hypotheses about some possible contributing factors. For instance, I think that back in the 1980s, as women in both parties were gaining ground in state legislatures, Republicans were doing so in large part thanks to the national efforts of the Christian Coalition and similar groups. They were recruiting candidates primarily from church activists, where the low-paying, often part-time legislative jobs were a perfect fit for stay-at-home wives in "traditional" marriages -- who were not making politics a career, and were unlikely to run for higher-profile offices that took them away from home to the state capital or Washington on a full-time basis.

In any event, it seems almost nonsensical at this point to make Ponnuru's implied distinction between the number of Republican women running for office, and the number of pro-life Republican women running for office; the vast, vast majority of all Republican candidates are now, and have for some time been, pro-life. So really, that brings us back to the broader question about the influx of candidates -- and back to Milligan's article.

Milligan is certainly correct that there are more Republican women running for higher office this year than previously, a factoid I have mentioned before. But there are surely far more Republicans running this year than in most recent election cycles; I don't have the numbers, but it seems pretty clear -- and unsurprising.

There are at least three likely reasons for this increase. First, there are a lot more openings to run for. The races Republicans are most likely to enter are those without an incumbent Republican; that is, open seats and those with Democratic incumbents. Thanks to the enormous success of Democrats in the last two election US House cycles, and the large numbers of open Governor and US Senator seats, there are just a whole lot more slots asking for Republicans to fill them -- 24 in the Senate, for example, compared with 17 in 2008.

Secondly, there is a lot of optimism in the GOP about winning many of these elections, which naturally lures in a lot more candidates. And third -- I would argue -- the populist, anti-establishment movement on the right has led, in many cases, to a set of anti-establishment candidates in addition to the establishment candidates, creating larger fields than is usually the case.


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