It’s not a big surprise that Nikki Haley will be the new Republican governor of South Carolina; she’s led the polls for months. But it’s still meaningful. Haley had a tough primary, where she was accused of lying on her taxes and cheating on her husband. She could have easily gone down in history as the first person to force Americans to deal with a cheating scandal involving a major female politician. (How French!) Instead she is the first female Indian-American governor, and the first female governor of South Carolina.
On the campaign trail, Haley never missed an opportunity to say that she was not running as a woman and that her gender didn’t matter. But that doesn’t change the fact that she just won the governor’s race in the state that has the worst record in the entire country for women in elected office (Oklahoma is second-worst). One of the big questions in this election, across the country, was whether voters would hold inexperience against women more than they did against men. In South Carolina they didn’t. Haley’s rise is most parallel to Marco Rubio’s; he won his Senate race in Florida. They are both 38-year-old newcomers to politics with compelling immigrant stories. She may be anti-feminist, pro-life, and want to destroy any government-subsidized child care, but still, her victory has symbolic meaning for women just as his does for Cuban-Americans.
Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, not so much. Those two Republican CEOs, running for governor and Senate respectively, were really supposed to carve out a new path for women in politics. They were supposed to show that women could behave exactly like men—move freely from corporate power to political power, buy their way into office. But at the moment of this posting, both of them are headed for losses. Whitman turned out to be a real dud of a candidate, as our own Libby Copeland explains. She failed to come up with a convincing story or connect with the voters, and the personality void got filled with mini scandals about her maid and her frat boy son. If Fiorina loses to Democratic veteran Barbara Boxer, it will be a testament to the staying power of the old feminist establishment. (That said, in Washington state, Patty Murray is not looking like a sure bet at the moment.)
By tomorrow, we will have a better sense of which new models for female candidates got traction and which did not. But in the meantime, let’s pause to show some sisterly support for Nancy Pelosi, the historic first female speaker of the House no longer. Throughout this campaign Pelosi, as much as Obama, served as resident demon. At one point, conservatives Photoshopped her into the pit of hell. I have no doubt that if this were the 17th century she would have been burned at the stake, and not just in effigy. Who will they burn now? Barbara Boxer? Michelle Obama?