Historic Numbers Of GOP Women Run For Office

There are many Republican women running for office this year. Driven by economic concerns, anti-incumbent fever or inspired by Sarah Palin, it seems to be a new day for the GOP. Next Tuesday's primaries feature many first tier GOP women.

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There is a lot of anger being directed at incumbents in this election year, so it shouldn't be surprising that there's a huge number of challengers running for Congress. There are more than 2,300 candidates for the House and the Senate. That's the highest number since the mid-1970s. And there are more women running for office this year. More of them are Republicans, as NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The number of Republican women in office and running for office has always lagged behind Democratic women. But this year the gap is closing. On next Tuesday's ballot alone there are lots of high profile female GOP candidates.

In California, women are the front-runners in both the Republican Senate and gubernatorial primaries. In Nevada, the two leading Republicans in Tuesday's Senate primary are women. One of them will face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall.

The self-appointed den mother for all these Republican female office seekers is Sarah Palin, her party's first female vice presidential candidate.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Republican Governor, Alaska): In Washington, let me tell you, you no doubt don't want to mess with moms who are rising up. There in Alaska, I always think of the mama grizzly bears that rise up on their hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs, to do something adverse toward their cubs. No, the mama grizzlies, they rear up and, you know, if you thought pit bulls were tough, well, you don't want to mess with the mama grizzlies.

Ms. MARJORIE DANNENFELSER (President, Susan B. Anthony List): It's good that you mentioned Sarah Palin, because I believe she is the wind in the sails for this election cycle.

LIASSON: That's Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that supports pro-life women candidates.

Ms. DANNENFELSER: Just the increase from last election cycle to this, we saw 54 women running, and only 18 were Republicans. This election cycle, we're looking at 107 running in the House, and 61 of those women are Republican women. So that's a greater, obviously, a greater proportion. We're in a different environment now.

LIASSON: It's an environment that, since 2008, has seen to favor outsiders, which women often are, says Dannenfelser.

Ms. DANNENFELSER: I believe why Obama resonated with voters is a freshness, a hunger for authenticity, truth-telling, not personal ambition, but issue ambition. There is a hunger for that, and women are a category that I think answers that.

LIASSON: It's also a good year to run as a Republican. And as the party has become more conservative, not surprisingly, so have women running as Republicans. But there's also something else that's new. Many of this year's female GOP candidates are rich - very rich, and they are able to self-finance.

Ruth Mandel is the senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

Professor RUTH MANDEL (Senior Scholar, Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers University): Some women are actually succeeding in business at high enough levels to be able to plow millions of dollars into their own campaigns. And men have been doing that. Some women are now able to do that. That's different. And they happen to be Republicans.

LIASSON: And just like a lot of anti-incumbent male candidates this year, some of these Republican women challengers come from unorthodox backgrounds. Take Linda McMahon, the GOP candidate for Senate in Connecticut. She's a multimillionaire and political outsider from the unlikely political incubator -or maybe not - of professional wrestling.

Ms. LINDA McMahon (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): If all else failed in Washington, I would set a ring up in the Senate chamber and lay the smack-down on some of these guys if they don't want to come to the table.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: And just like male candidates, some of these women are running into the same kinds of questions about their personal lives. Here's South Carolina Republican candidate for governor, Nikki Haley.

State Representative NIKKI HALEY (Republican, South Carolina; Gubernatorial Candidate): It is absolutely not true. Michael and I have been married for 13 years. We've been faithful to each other.

LIASSON: Ruth Mandel sees all of these Republican women candidates as a natural result of a work that an earlier generation of feminist pioneers - back then, mostly liberal women - did to plow the field.

Prof. MANDEL: For many, many years, when the Women's Movement, when we were discussing, well, if, you know, what kind of women do we want to get in? And some of us would say you can't open the door just a crack. You have to open it very wide. You have to encourage young women to dream about public life and public leadership, and you have to keep the door wide for all kinds women. And that's what we're seeing now: all kinds of women.

LIASSON: And that, says Mandel, is a sign of success for women on all points of the political spectrum.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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