After decades spent in the shadows of male candidates, Republican women are staging something of a comeback in California. The state's two top electoral contests this year prominently feature them — a novelty in a place where gender politics have been almost exclusively Democratic.
Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman shattered glass ceilings in their careers as Silicon Valley CEOs. Now the question is whether they can do the same in a state party that has never nominated a woman in those races and last saw a GOP woman elected to a statewide post in 1970.
The candidates' attempt to reshape the party's face comes as women have nationally become a galvanizing force for the GOP's most committed voters. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are favorites of conservative activists.
The Californians are not political rabble-rousers like those women, but rather refugees from the business world, where Whitman ran EBay and Fiorina ran Hewlett-Packard. They frequently play up the fact that they are not "career politicians," and say their corporate experience will enable them to slash bureaucracy, create jobs and root out waste and fraud.
Whitman and Fiorina, as well as Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut, another GOP businesswoman making her first bid for office, have been able to overcome the obstacles that would typically face newcomers in part because of their visibility as corporate chieftains — and their wealth.
Win or not, some Republicans are counting on the women candidates to broaden public perceptions of the party itself.
"I think it would be a tremendous advantage to have women at the top of the Republican ticket," said Adam Mendelsohn, a veteran GOP campaign strategist who said Republicans have failed to nurture women in leadership roles and elected office. "All you have to do is look at our ranks and our numbers....We have a serious outreach problem."
California traditionally has not groomed its own Palins or Bachmanns because fewer GOP women than men have sought office, and the ones who did often were not embraced by party leaders. The most prominent recent statewide attempt was by former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who ran for Senate in 2004 but was crushed in the GOP primary. The last Republican woman actually nominated was Cathie Wright, a legislator who was the party's candidate for lieutenant governor in 1994.
Democrats have a longer and more successful history with women candidates. In 1950, Helen Gahagan Douglas won the party nomination to compete against Richard Nixon for a U.S. Senate seat. She coined the nickname "Tricky Dick" but lost in the general election.
Democrats elected female nominees for governor in 1990 and 1994; another woman ran for the nomination in 1998. The Democratic congressional delegation has more women than men, while Republicans have a single woman. Since 1992, the state's two senators have been Democratic women, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, whom Fiorina wants to unseat.
"The elections of Feinstein and Boxer opened the door for Fiorina and Whitman to run for statewide office and have gender be less of an issue," said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's longtime campaign manager. "California has seen two women representing us in the Senate for 18 years. That is a powerful role model for other women seeking office, and it makes it easier for the next women to run."
Unlike Feinstein and Boxer, who unabashedly made gender an issue in 1992, Fiorina and Whitman have largely avoided making overt gender-based appeals. They are, however, actively courting women voters.
"I was one of a very small number of women in technology. The way I decided to handle all that is I said 'You know what, I'm just going to put my head down, deliver results, tell my story and tell the story of the company, and I can't worry about the rest of this because I can't control that," Whitman said in an interview. "What I can do is…deliver the results. That's the way I've navigated being in the minority for almost my entire business career."
One of the unknowns is whether Republican women voters will gravitate toward female candidates like Democratic women have. Early polling shows that, if anything, male GOP voters are stronger supporters of the women candidates than female voters.
Fiorina learned earlier this year about the volatility of the gender issue when her remarks about increasing female participation in politics caused a kerfuffle among conservative bloggers and pundits.
"We saw this with Hillary Clinton. Do they get judged differently? Yes, I do think they do," said Donna Lucas, a Sacramento-based public relations consultant and longtime GOP advisor. "Women, if they're aggressive, they're too aggressive; if they're not aggressive, they're too wimpy."