Three years after women flooded the streets of American cities to protest President Trump’s election, two years since a record number of women ran for Congress and helped Democrats win control of the House, and one year after a record number of women decided to run for president, the Democratic Party is still embroiled in a debate about whether female candidates are up to the job of beating President Trump.
Just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been a front-runner but consistently dogged by doubts about her electability, has made gender a central element of her final campaign push.
Through most of the campaign year, Warren’s message has been built mostly around class, not gender. But starting in the run-up to last week’s televised debate in Iowa, she has increasingly pressed a gender-focused message.
It’s a move that carries the hope of galvanizing women voters in a state where women have generally cast a significant majority of caucus votes. But it also brings considerable risk, highlighting the question of electability that has dogged her in a year in which Democratic voters are singularly focused on picking a candidate they believe can safely beat Trump.
Some voters cringe at party infighting.
“I don’t think it’s time to argue,” said Lisa Beving, an undecided voter from Johnston, Iowa. “We have too much to lose.”
Last week, in the debate, Warren confronted the electability question, arguing that the two women still running for president had a better record of electoral success than the men.
On Sunday, she received the endorsement of the highest-ranking woman in the Iowa Legislature. She met with Planned Parenthood activists in Des Moines on Friday and rallied her audience there to recognize the role women have played leading the resistance to Trump and winning control of the House.
“Women have come off the sidelines, women have stood up, women have said, ‘I am not going to sit down and be quiet any longer,’” Warren said.
She and the other remaining woman in the race, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, got a boost Sunday with an unusual dual endorsement by the New York Times editorial board. The endorsement does not focus on the fact they are both women. But in their campaigns, neither has downplayed their gender.
Klobuchar has been blunt about sexism in the campaign, taking shots at former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., by saying a woman could never be so successful with such a thin resume. She makes jokes about her short height. She talks frequently about being a mom.
And Warren’s campaign, even when she did not focus explicitly on gender, has been infused with her identity as a woman.
Her life story, the core of her stump speech, could be told only by a woman: She dropped out of college to get married, set her sights on being a teacher, lost jobs when she was pregnant. Her first policy proposal was about subsidizing child care, and she often tells the story about how she almost quit a job as a young mother because of the burdens of caring for a baby — until her aunt came to the rescue.
When she meets young girls on the campaign trail she makes “pinky swear” promises and tells them, “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.”
She has given four major campaign speeches built around the stories of accomplished, if often overlooked, women in history. She lauded Frances Perkins, the former Labor secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a New York City speech to more than 10,000 people; she hailed Phillis Wheatley, the first published black woman poet, in a New Year’s Eve speech in Boston.
All along, Warren backers says, she has been hampered by voters who say she is the best candidate but they doubt a woman can beat Trump.
Taking that argument “head on” at last week’s debate, Warren pointed out that she and Klobuchar were the only candidates on the stage who had been undefeated in their electoral history.
It was an attention-grabbing argument but was overshadowed by the clash between Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders over her claim that in a private 2018 conversation, he told her that he did not think a woman could beat Trump. He denied that, and after the debate, she refused to shake his hand.
In an exchange caught on tape, they each accused the other of calling them a liar.
The ice may be beginning to break. The two shook hands Monday when they met at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in South Carolina. And they shared a light moment at a forum in Des Moines where presidential candidates were asked, among other more serious questions, about food preferences.
“We have a serious disagreement on Indian food,” Sanders said to Warren as they crossed paths backstage, according to a video clip posted on Twitter.
The confrontation over gender politics carries special political risk in Iowa, where the caucus system gives candidates an incentive to appeal to voters for whom they might be a second choice.
Many Sanders supporters are furious at what they see as her backstabbing and questioning of Sanders’ credibility. That could come into play because caucus-goers are sometimes called upon to back their second choice if their first falls short of a 15% viability threshold in their precinct.
“This fight with Bernie is not helping her,” said one Iowa Democrat who has endorsed Warren. “There are a lot of precincts where she is viable and Bernie is not. Her ability to win over those folks is lessened.”
But others say the intensified focus on gender could help Warren in the home stretch if it galvanizes women who are on the fence, especially those who have questions about Sanders’ record on women. His 2016 campaign staff was hit by allegations of sexual harassment.
“It can become a really important part of her closing argument,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic activist who is neutral in the primary race. “This is the opposite of what he wants the closing argument to be.”
Sanders has stepped up his defense on women’s issues. In an ad running in Iowa and New Hampshire, a female narrator says, “Bernie Sanders is on our side and always has been.” This weekend, he picked up the endorsement of another influential woman in the party’s progressive wing, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington.
In a New Hampshire radio interview Saturday, Sanders continued to deny that he told Warren a woman couldn’t beat Trump and stirred the pot again when asked whether “gender is still an obstacle for female politicians.”
“The answer is yes,” Sanders said. “But I think everybody has their own sets of problems. I’m 78 years of age. That’s a problem.”
Warren this weekend declined repeated opportunities to re-engage in the fight with Sanders. At the Planned Parenthood event, Warren met an undecided voter who felt strongly about the episode.
“I believe you 100%,” said Tanya Keith, 48, of Des Moines, who said she had “PTSD” from the battles between Sanders and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
“I would like to know what your plans are for shutting him down, and when you’re the nominee, winning his supporters over to your camp, because I feel like that was a mistake that we made in the Clinton camp, that we didn’t mend those fences,” Keith said.
Warren did not take the bait.
“Bernie and I have been friends for a long time. We fight for the same issues, we’ve been allies in these battles long before I ever got into politics,” she said.
“That’s all I want to say about that topic. Because what I truly believe is we’re going to have to pull together.”
The New York Times’ endorsement of the two women remaining in the field was a bigger boost for Klobuchar, who has been struggling to make it into the top tier in Iowa in order to keep her candidacy alive, than for Warren, who would not have been a surprising choice for the liberal editorial page.
Janet Petersen, the state senator who just endorsed Warren, joked about the double choice at a town hall meeting Monday in Grimes, when talking about people in the audience who were still undecided.
“I get it. Even the New York Times gets it. They couldn’t decide.”
Notably, the endorsement made only one mention of the two endorsees’ gender: In closing, the editorial said, “May the best woman win.”