The Mama Grizzlies You Don’t Know

Meet the new crop of GOP women elected to Congress in 2010.

What did we get from all that “Mama Grizzly” hype? The more out-there candidates (Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle) lost their seats, but does that mean the whole phenomenon was a bust? Not at all. There is a new generation of GOP women who will be initiated into the House and other key political posts come January: Slightly more than half of the 56 Republican women who ran for governor, Senate, and the House were elected. The most prominent successful candidates—Gov.-elects Nikki Haley, Mary Fallin, and Susana Martinez, and Kelly Ayotte in the Senate—probably won because they were unlike Angle and O’Donnell. That is, they were all less prone to say outrageous things to reporters and much more sober on the stump. Haley, the new Indian-American governor of South Carolina, for example, played closer to the serious accountant type than the party rebel. That serious pose might not have gotten them quite as much media attention—at least, not compared with O’Donnell, the election cycle’s most-covered candidate—but media attention didn’t translate into votes, especially for women, this year.

And the incoming GOP congresswomen did an even better job of staying out of the spotlight. A handful grabbed occasional national headlines—Kristi Noem as the “new Palin”; Renee Ellmers for using an anti-Muslim ad—but most still require introduction outside of wonkish circles. The eight (so far—one race in New York is still pending) new Republican women in the House are as unpolished as your average House member. They include a former home-ec teacher, a musician, a deputy sheriff, a couple of nurses, a retired ophthalmologist, a former White House intern, a rancher, and a bow hunter with an already much-admired shag haircut. Only two on the list are older than 50, an age that, for GOP men, is sometimes associated with “fresh newcomer.” Most of them have children—or, rather, “the Lord blessed them” with children or their “most important job is being a mom.” And enough of those are young children that Congress could probably, for the first time, open a members-only child care center from which mostly the dads do the pickup.

Nearly all rode the Tea Party’s coattails into office, embracing or being embraced by the movement. They won by fairly slim margins. And as a group, they largely stuck to those Mama Grizzly/Tea Party talking points, with some regional variations. They hate Obamacare, wasteful government spending, and open borders. More than anything, though, they hate Nancy Pelosi. Sandy Adams of Illinois even did a “Fire Pelosi” bus tour, collecting the most unflattering pictures possible of the House Speaker. Nan Hayworth explained that her whole motivation for running for office started with utter disgust at the Pelosi Congress. And while most are deeply conservative on social issues, they ducked from making them central to their platforms. In a year when health care was more important than abortion, these women repackaged themselves as practical watchdogsthe political equivalent of the wife who keeps an eagle eye on the household finances.

When railing against Obamacare, several pointed out that women make 80 percent of health care decisions at home. And Dr. Nan Hayworth and nurses Renee Ellmers and Diane Black went one step farther, linking their stance against the health care plan to their medical expertise. (Hayworth diagnosed her opponent not only with “Obamacare-itis, but with “spending-itis.”) They also wanted to shrink the government; at least one—Martha Roby of Alabama—suggested axing the Department of Education. On immigration, Susana Martinez, the new governor of New Mexico, and Jaime Herrera, a congresswoman-to-be from Washington state, make up the new, Latina face of anti-immigration policy. This year, being a woman turned out to provide a combination of qualities male Republican can only envy: It made a candidate seem “more compassionate” but also “decisive and effective in managing crisis,” says Linda Divall, who did the polling and focus groups for the Republican National Committee’s effort to recruit new female candidates.

From their first day in power House Republican leadership felt pressure not to be an all-boys’ club. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota ran for a leadership post, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington was being pushed to do so, too. * Kristi Noem might nab the new leadership spot that’s being created for one lucky freshman in the House. “It’s important that leadership represents the choice of the people coming into our caucus. Whether it’s gender or ethnicity, it’ll be up to members to make that decision,” Bachmann told Politico. So to introduce you to the new female members of that caucus, we’ve put together an old-fashioned freshman facebook.

Click here for a slide-show introduction to the newly elected GOP women in the House.

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Correction, Nov. 12, 2010: This article originally misspelled Michele Bachmann’s first name and misidentified her as representing Missouri. (Return to the corrected sentence.)