Running while female: 2020 presidential hopefuls test differing strategies
When Elizabeth Warren launched her 2012 Senate bid in Massachusetts, some Democrats there worried. Another woman had run two years earlier and failed miserably. But Warren ignored warnings that she would be “another Martha Coakley.” She beat the incumbent by more than 7 percentage points and became the first woman elected to statewide office in Massachusetts.
Now Warren is among a record number of women running for president in 2020. Again, they’re operating in the shadow of failure — Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful White House bid in 2016 — but also the widespread successes of women in the 2018 midterm election.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California joins Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the upper tier of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Each takes a different tack in navigating the powerful crosscurrents of being a woman in national politics.
Gillibrand plays the gender card most emphatically, emphasizing her record on protecting women from sexual assault and her support for female candidates. Explaining why she is running for president, she often begins, “As a young mom…”
Harris’ campaign rollout, including Sunday’s kickoff rally in Oakland, focused more on her connections with the black community and a career in law enforcement that breaks from gender stereotypes.
Warren tells her story as the daughter of an economically struggling family, putting class, not gender, at the center of her campaign.
“There is no uniform approach to how these women will navigate gender in the campaign,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“While Gillibrand sees and discusses politics and policy through a gender lens, Warren’s primary focus has been on class. In her rollout, Kamala Harris has already shown that she will embrace and discuss being a black woman in power.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii also has announced a long-shot bid for president, with considerable focus on her status as a military veteran. The field of female candidates may grow if Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a former prosecutor like Harris, decides to run.
“I love that fact that we have four women running, and that America gets to see what different forms of female leadership look like,” Gillibrand said.
In the aftermath of Clinton’s failure, however, some Democrats worry about a stubborn strain of sexism in the electorate.
“I don’t know if America has changed enough; hopefully they have, with the #MeToo movement,” said Brad Lego, 69, a retired teacher in Sioux City, Iowa, who supports Warren.
Women historically have had a harder time winning executive offices than legislative ones. Even with a record number of women running for governor in 2018, just nine of the nation’s 50 governors are now women.
“Solo leadership is still tougher for women and people of color,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is an expert on women in politics. “There is still a little concern about the difficulty of electing women to executive office. That wasn’t just Hillary Clinton.”
But for Democrats in 2020, for the first time in the history of presidential campaigns, being a woman is probably more a political asset than a liability. Women —- as voters and candidates — became the vanguard of the party’s resistance to President Trump, from the 2017 Women’s March to the midterm election that drew out female candidates in record numbers.
The congressional midterm saw the largest gender gap in modern political history, as Democrats won 59% of the female vote, with just 40% voting Republican. Men, by contrast, favored Republicans by a 4-point margin, 51% to 47%, according to exit polls.
Clinton tried two very different approaches to gender as a political issue. When she sought the Democratic nomination in 2008, she essentially ran away from the subject.
“I am not running as a woman,” she would say. “I am running because I believe I am the best qualified and experienced person.”
Eight years later, she talked often about the history-making potential of her campaign to “shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
The current crop of female candidates doesn’t follow either of those paths.
Gillibrand, at 52 the least known of the three female senators who have gotten into the race, is moving the most deliberately to build her identity as a defender of women.
“The future of the Democratic Party is with women,” an introductory campaign document said. She spotlights her Senate work on combating sexual abuse in the military and other issues related to sexual harassment and assault, and her political work raising money for female candidates through her political action committee, Off the Sidelines.
Pictures of children — her own and others’ — crowd her campaign website. She describes her rationale for running, offered first in her campaign announcement on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show,” in explicitly gendered terms: “As a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.”
The approach risks delivering a message so gender specific that it alienates men. But in the short term, at least, her strategists think that any such risk is worth taking to gain purchase in a crowded field.
“My lifelong mission is for more women to have a voice and seat at the table with men, so that they can bring a new perspective to the problems facing our country,” Gillibrand says. “This vision does not exclude anyone, it brings more diverse voices into the conversation.”
Harris’ introduction to voters put more of a spotlight on race than gender: She announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, gave her first press briefing at Howard University, the historically black college she attended in the 1980s, and scheduled her first campaign event in South Carolina — at a gala for a black sorority she belongs to.
During her Oakland rally, Harris spoke bluntly about racism in the criminal justice system and society at large. “I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him or kill him because of his race,” Harris said.
Having advanced in a male-dominated career as a prosecutor, she offered this advice to young women in an interview with “Good Morning America”: “There are going to be many times you are going to be the only one like you in a room. It could be a meeting room, it could be a boardroom. And the thing I want you to remember is this: When you are in that room, we are all in that room with you, cheering you on.”
Harris’ tough-on-crime record has drawn skepticism from some on the party’s left, but it could appeal to public-safety conscious moms in the suburbs, including white women whose votes for Trump proved pivotal in 2016.
Warren’s campaign-launch video gave a personal window onto her life story — speaking from her kitchen, she talked about her family’s struggles, her mother’s resilience and her own rise to a law professorship at Harvard. The story spoke more to class struggle than a battle against sexism.
At other times, however, she has struck a more explicit note on gender. At an Ankeny, Iowa, campaign event with Democratic women in early January, for example, Warren relished telling how she had been warned against running for Senate after Coakley’s failure.
“It was almost as if folks were saying, ‘Hey, we tried that. It didn’t work. Come back in a generation or two, women.’ ”
She also paid tribute to how much women — especially those who were newly engaged in politics as voters and candidates — had contributed to Democrats’ 2018 midterm victories.
One of the newly engaged women was Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against GOP Rep. Peter T. King on Long Island, N.Y. She remembers vividly an unexpected phone call of support she got from Warren.
Shirley was in the middle of a grueling day juggling the demands of campaigning with the medical needs of a young son who had broken his leg. Warren listened to her woes and offered this tough-love pep talk that spoke to the continued challenges women face in politics:
“We moms, when we run out of milk, we make breakfast with orange juice.”
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