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Voices / Column

Conservative women candidates and the midterm elections

Elayne Clift (www.elayneclift.com) writes about women, politics and social issues.

Saxtons River

    When a staffer for South Carolina’s former governor claimed that GOP governor hopeful Nikki Haley had been unfaithful to her husband, she simply stared him down and went on with her campaign for the Republican nomination. 

A month later, when similar allegations were made by a former political consultant for her opponent, she shrugged, faced the cameras, and declared that she had been “100 percent faithful” to her husband. 

The allegations never stuck, and Haley went on to win the primary.  She could well become South Carolina’s first female governor when elections take place in November.  Endorsed by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, Haley describes herself as a libertarian.  Others (like me) think she represents the right wing of the party to the right.

    Haley is one of many women who ran successful primary campaigns in this midterm election.  While not all were successful, 23 women ran for Senate seats, nearly 200 ran for seats in the House of Representatives, and 21 women are candidates for governor of their states.

* * *

    Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, is one of the women trying to make it to the Governor’s Mansion in California.  A native of New York but longtime resident of her state, she was ranked the most powerful woman in business in 2004 and 2005 by Fortune.

Whitman’s political positions reflect her conservative leanings.  She is against raising taxes to meet social-service needs, and to combat the growing deficit, she has vowed to suspend the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. She also supported California’s attempts to ban gay marriage. 

Critics point out that she has strong ties to Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank now accused of financial misdeeds. They also reveal that Whitman did not vote for 28 years, a record she has admitted is “atrocious.”

    Another California businesswoman, Carly Fiorina, is running for a Senate seat in that state.  She will compete with longtime, popular liberal Senator Barbara Boxer – whose hairstyle Fiorina was caught mocking recently. 

Fiorina served as president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005 when she was forced to resign over the economic fallout from a contentious merger with Compaq.    In 2008, she served as a top economic advisor to John McCain.  Fiorina currently serves on the boards of several big businesses.

In Nevada, another woman is trying to unseat a long-term Democrat in the Senate.  Arch-conservative and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle is running to oust Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Active in local and state politics, Angle says she is “a proud member” of the Gun Owners of America, the National Right to Life Committee, and the conservative group, Concerned Women for America. She wants to abolish Social Security and to dismantle the Department of Education. 

Journalists have not been able to learn more about her platforms because she is notoriously elusive when it comes to talking to the press. 

* * *

Clearly, the good news about this election is that it looks like another Year of the Woman in American politics. In 1992, the number of women in Congress went from 33 to 55.  This year, there are 90 women and more on the way.

And gender was hardly an issue in this year’s campaigns. A June article in The Wall Street Journal suggested four factors that were at play.

First, women are seen as outsiders at a time when the electorate is fed up with establishment politics.  Second, there may be a natural progression occurring now that women are more empowered, credentialed, and financially viable. 

Clearly, the “Palin factor” matters to voters on the right, and Palin has endorsed Haley and Fiorina.  And there is the “empathy factor,” which means a woman can better deliver the message that it will be necessary to pare down government programs in a time of soaring budget deficits. That, some say, is why Palin dubbed the women she supports “mama grizzlies.”

But the less-than-good news for voters on the left is that most of the women running, and winning their primaries, represent the politics of the far right.

That means, for one thing, they are pro-life vs. pro-choice, and if in office would take up the banner of those who would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. 

They would also side with big business — “Wall Street vs. Main Street” as the cliché now goes — and government deregulation. They would keep the Supreme Court leaning to the right. 

A statement by Meg Whitman the night she won her primary was cheered by conservatives in the Tea Party movement while chilling liberal ears.

“Career politicians in Washington, be warned,” she said, “because you now face your worst nightmare: businesswomen from the real world …”

The true test of these women and those who support them will come in November when elections take place.  Until then, it remains a hopeful story and a cautionary tale, free at the moment of gendered campaign rhetoric. 

There is, at least, that.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #61 (Wednesday, August 4, 2010).

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