There are a lot of Republican women running for Senate this year. In fact, there are so many that, in a surprising twist, it might be Republicans, not Democrats, that help raise the number of women in the Senate over the current record of 20 female senators. As Kay Steiger of Talking Points Memo explains, a full 16 out of the 20 current sitting female senators are Democrats, and many of them are facing tough campaigns for re-election this year. If the Senate is going to have more than 20 women in it, it’s likely because of Republican women picking up seats.
But a surge in female Republicans winning elections shouldn’t be mistaken for a change in the basic gender dynamics driving modern politics. In a piece on Republican Joni Ernst’s surprisingly robust Senate campaign against Rep. Bruce Braley in Iowa, New York Times writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg focuses on how much Ernst is relying on the male vote to push her over the top. “If Ms. Ernst winds up in Washington, it will be largely because Iowa’s men sent her there,” she writes. “Ms. Ernst has a 12-point advantage among men deemed most likely to vote, while she and Mr. Braley are closely divided among such women, according to an NBC News/Marist College poll released this week.” Ernst has picked up some female voters—mostly older, likely married ones—but, like for most Republicans, it’s male voters who will win her the election.
This isn’t to say that Ernst’s gender isn’t an asset here. Stolberg writes:
But Ms. Ernst is hardly ignoring her gender. Her ads offer a playful take on masculine endeavors. There she is firing a gun. There she is riding a Harley-Davidson. There she is boasting about “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”
But interspersed among those images are other, softer cues: In one new ad, she is seated at a kitchen table talking about “the Iowa we leave our children”; in another, she says she learned the “key to a great biscuit” while working at a fast-food restaurant.
Ernst’s campaign is an example of how gender in politics is not just about men vs. women. Ernst might make history by getting more women in the Senate, but she’ll do it by being rabidly anti-choice—voting to defund Planned Parenthood and supporting a personhood amendment—and hostile to legislative efforts to reduce gender discrimination. Likewise, conservative swipes at young, single women in general (or Sandra Fluke in particular) aren’t about appealing to men, broadly. Those kinds of attacks can be very appealing to married, conservative women as well. In fact, gender itself isn’t a great predictor on where one sits on the traditional “women’s issues” like reproductive rights, equal pay, or fighting gender-based violence. It’s our partisan gap, not our gender gap, that’s growing.