The XX Factor

Kentucky Senate Race Tests How Far Democrats Can Take the “War on Women” Rhetoric

U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in a very effective dress.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Ben Terris of the Washington Post profiled Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell for his seat. Grimes is an entertaining character, so full of bluster that Terris compares her to Sarah Palin—but apparently it’s working with the voters, as recent polls show her in a dead heat with McConnell. She’s also pulling ahead with female voters, causing McConnell to react with the standard move from the Republican old white dude playbook: Put your wife out there and try to sound upbeat about the ladies as often as you can. 

Grimes has her own playbook. As Terris notes, she’s making a big deal out of her gender. “Her point is not subtle,” he writes. “Grimes, unabashedly embracing the political upside of her gender, is suggesting that McConnell, 72, is not taking this female challenger (or other women) as seriously as he should.” (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver noticed the same thing about Grimes’ campaign in this NSFW video, which includes the full frontal male nudity denied to us even on Game of Thrones.) Grimes is fond of mentioning her dresses and high heels in speeches and calling herself a “strong Kentucky woman.”

It’s a strategy that, on its surface, should be backfiring. Research by the Name It. Change It. research project shows that when attention is drawn to a female candidate’s gender, especially her clothing choices, it tends to hurt her in the polls. (Cue another HBO reference: Selina Meyer on Veep saying, “No, no, no, I can’t identify as a woman! People can’t know that.”) But, for some reason, all this talk about gender is giving Grimes a leg up in the polls. 

Perhaps that’s because there is one situation when drawing attention to your gender is actually shown to help a woman in the polls: when she’s accusing her opposition of sexism. The Name It. Change It. project found that while even the subtlest forms of sexism dampen the prospects of female candidates, if the candidates hit back and called it out as sexism, that changes everything. Suddenly the female candidate surges back in the polls, probably because voters don’t want to think of themselves as the kind of people who are swayed by sexism. 

That’s what Grimes appears to be doing with all this clothing talk. It’s less, “Look, I’m a lady!” and more “Yes, I’m a lady, but you’re not sexists who would hold that against me, are you?” Her lines about being a woman read like a rebuke to sexism: “This is a Kentucky woman through and through, who proudly wears a dress,” Terris quotes her saying. The word “proudly” is doing all the work, implying that some people—she’s not saying who, but some—might think women shouldn’t be proud of their gender. Same story with another favorite line: “I have stood strong in these heels,” which is another attempt to invert and refute a sexist stereotype of women as weak. 

The interesting thing is that McConnell hasn’t made any statements that are so overtly sexist that Grimes can campaign against them directly. Unfortunately for him, Grimes’ implication that her opponent is condescending to women still has traction—probably because so many Republican men before him have been, and because most women have endured encounters with older men who treat them like silly children. It’s also because Grimes can point to actual policy positions that McConnell has taken in the past that are anti-woman, particularly his attacks on equal pay legislation.

The race in Kentucky is shaping up to be a true test of how much power the “Republican war on women” narrative has. If Grimes can win by successfully painting her opponent as an out-of-touch sexist whose anti-woman votes reflect an overall distaste for modern women and their power, then expect that this will become a go-to strategy for Democrats, especially when running female opponents against male incumbents. It may sometimes be true, it may sometimes be craven—but that’s politics.