Women Score Big In Recent Primary Elections

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Women are making significant political strides this election cycle with their names headlining campaign tickets in states like California, New Mexico and South Carolina. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker and Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, discuss the female candidates who rose to victory in the recent primary elections and the future of women in politics.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's Friday and we are going to focus on politics. One of the year's biggest primaries was on Tuesday and we're going to talk more about the results. We'll touch on that brewing battle in South Carolina to get the Democratic Senate nominee to step down. Not only is he African-American, he's also somebody who won without putting up one yard sign or handing out a single campaign button. Intrigued? So are we. So, we'll try to find out more about him in just a few minutes.

But first, though, we focus on women. A record number of candidates filed to run for congressional and Senate seats this year and many of them are women and a record number are Republican women. High profile women candidates in states like California and South Carolina are making headlines. In New Mexico, both gubernatorial candidates are women and the list goes on.

So we wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She blogs nearly every day as well. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, a former deputy director of communications for the Republican National Committee, and she blogs for U.S. News and World Report and writes opinion pieces. Thank you both so much for being with us.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to be here.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, I'll just start with you because so much of the news is on the Republican side, why do you think this is that a record number of Republican women filed for congressional seats this year?

KATE CARY: I think that the women represent new faces and change. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that in most families there are statistics that show women are the primary decision makers on health care. They make the major purchasing decisions. And so I think that as more and more women have entered the workforce and are juggling families and bills and things like that, I think that there's an increasing awareness amongst the moms, basically, about what's going on at the national level.

And, you know, this out of control spending, the deficit being passed on to our children, and I think they're feeling more and more empowered to throw their hat in the ring, which they were reluctant to do in the past because it's a major sacrifice.

MARTIN: Cynthia, what's your perspective on this? Why do you think this is?

TUCKER: Well, I find the surge on the Republican side especially fascinating. And I think it's high time because one thing I think we have to note here is that there have been far fewer Republican women in elective office than Democratic women. And so I would say finally Republican women are beginning to catch up.

And though I disagree with her politics, I have to give Sarah Palin some of the credit for that. I think she has been an inspiration to women on the Republican side. I also think that there has just been a maturation for women in general.

MARTIN: Well, we'll talk a little bit more about that. I particularly want to talk about the Nikki Haley race in South Carolina where she's not the nominee yet, she needs to face the runoff and they were just a whispering campaign. Not really even a whispering campaign, kind of an overt campaign alleging marital infidelity on her part. So, I'm interested in your take on it.

But before we get to that, the gender piece. It's interesting how this plays out. Most of these candidates did not run on gender per se, but the tropes, the traditional tropes still emerge and sometimes by them. I just want to play a short clip that California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, of course famous for her leadership at Hewlett-Packard, caused a stir after she was caught on tape taking a dig at Barbara Boxer, the Democrat incumbent who served in the Senate for something like 18 years. Let's play a short clip.

CARLY FIORINA: Laura saw Barbara Boxer briefly on television this morning and said what everyone says, God, what is that hair?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FIORINA: So yesterday.

MARTIN: Carly Fiorina says she's not going to apologize for the hair remark. Mary Kate, I'm kind of curious what you make of that.

KATE CARY: Why on earth do staffers let these politicians have live mics and run around the room? As a former staffer of politicians, I can say, just turn off the mics. But having said that, she needs to apologize. It's an opportunity for grace. And she should get this behind her, pick up the phone, call Barbara Boxer and move beyond this because this plays, as you're saying, these tropes of women being catty. This comes with the territory with women these days.

There's a huge double standard. We would never be discussing a man's hair or what he's wearing or his fashion looks in the middle of his endorsements. Having known that there's a double standard, the women do not need to play into this. And the women should rise above it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our Friday political chat with Cynthia Tucker, Prize winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter, former deputy director of communications for the Republican National Committee, and she now blogs and writes opinion pieces for U.S. News and World Report.

Cynthia, what about this whole story from South Carolina, where State Representative Nikki Haley who's now in a runoff for the Republican nomination, the race to become governor of South Carolina, I don't know if it's a campaign. I do know that these allegations that she had extramarital affairs with two individuals became quite public. It was something that openly discussed on the campaign trail in a way that I think was surprising to some people.

I'm interested in what you think that is about. Is it that she's being held to the same standard as men or that infidelity is an issue in South Carolina because of the shenanigans of the incumbent Governor Mark Sanford? Or is this about being a woman? What do you think that was about?

TUCKER: I think this primary campaign with Nikki Haley broke new ground in two directions. South Carolina has now firmly established itself for having the nastiest politics in the country. I think we're pretty clear about that.

Conversely, the good news is that Nikki Haley was not only not damaged by this, her response to it, which was to go ahead, steal her spine, slough off the allegations won her some converts, I think.

And while men have long been dogged with allegations of infidelity, I think that traditionally, had this happened to a woman, it would have stopped her campaign dead in the tracks. It doesn't matter that the allegations were absolutely unproven. There was no evidence offered.

MARTIN: I don't know what evidence you could offer.

TUCKER: Other than videotape. Thank heaven there was none of that. But again, you know, initially, very early on, Nikki Haley was supposed to be an also-ran in this campaign. She had three male opponents. Nobody thought she would emerge as the victor. In fact, she nearly won without a runoff. She's widely expected to be the nominee. And this was all against the backdrop of not only these vicious allegations of extramarital infidelity, but also racism as well.

Let's remember she is Indian-American, comes from a Sikh background. And some South Carolina Republican politician called her a rag head. She ignored that as well and kept stepping. So I say, good for Nikki Haley.

MARTIN: Wow. You were saying that they were kind of winning the race for the nastiest politics in the country. And I think - I was going to argue with you, but I think you may have sold me right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think you may have sold me on that.

And, finally, I want to talk about New Mexico. Women are representing both parties in the race for governor in New Mexico. This has happened before, but it's still unusual to have two major party candidates who are women.

Mary Kate, do you - and I'm interested if you think this neutralized gender.

KATE CARY: I think in a lot of these races, these are economically conservative candidates who happen to be women. And I think that message is selling this year for the reasons we talked about earlier. I think that's part of what's going on across the board.

In New Mexico itself, the woman you're referring to is Susana Martinez. And she was a - or she is the county D.A. She prosecuted 600 immigration cases last year, border security type cases. So I think a lot of this race may not be economics so much as border security.

But her running mate is a Hispanic businessman. And so to have two Hispanics on the Republican side and a woman and then have a woman on the other side, but I think no Hispanics, it's a very interesting race with a lot of energy and a lot of things that have never been done before. And so there's a lot of interest and I'm very curious. I think it's going to be a great fall to watch all these races.

MARTIN: And it's also, but you're right, there was this - I remember one of the - a very well-known political consultant whose name I cannot recall at the moment - said that the Democrats were the mommy party and the Republicans were the daddy party. And, you know, the daddy party was all about who can be sort of tougher and more fiscally conservative and so forth.

It seems that those lines are blurring here. I just want to play competing ads from the New Mexico race already. It's already gotten, I don't know if you want to say nasty, but certainly intense. Diane Denish, she's the Democratic nominee. Susana Martinez, as you said, is the Republican nominee. And these are some examples of the ads that they're running against each other. It's all about who's tougher. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

Unidentified Man #1: Susana Martinez promised not to plea bargain felony drunk drivers, but she broke her promise and cut over 800 plea bargain deals. It's a dangerous record failure. In these tough times, we need a governor who protects families and gets results: Diane Denish.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MARTIN: Diane Denish, false ads to hide the truth. Denish helped abolish the death penalty, even for cop killers. It gets worse. A department in Denish's Cabinet gave sanctuary to criminal illegals like child molester Juan Gonzalez. Denish promised to review their policies, but the sanctuary policy stayed, so did Juan Gonzalez, and he just attacked another child.

MARTIN: Well, Cynthia, what do you make of this?

TUCKER: Well, what I make of it is, again, the maturation of women in politics. You know, we now had - two years ago it's been - Hillary Clinton came very close to being the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. In order to get that far, she had to show herself to be tough, to be able to fit into the mold of commander in chief. Similarly, Sarah Palin was running on the Republican side, a heartbeat away from the presidency.

So I think that women have already proved that they are more than tough enough to deal with the issues that we have traditionally assigned to men. So, you know, I think it's a good sign that women are down in the trenches battling it out in the way that men traditionally have, proving themselves to be tough.

Having said that, I still think that women happen to elevate some issues, no matter what their politics are, that men don't traditionally elevate - children's issues, health care, education, I still think will get more attention from women candidates. And maybe in the future we'll see a different kind of male candidate step forward who's a little more well-rounded and who elevates those issues that we have traditionally assigned to women.

There's one more thing I want to say about California, though, if Meg Whitman gets elected, then the three top politicians will all be women. You'd have Meg Whitman as governor and no matter who wins in the Senate races, the two senators will be women. Boy, what a sea change that would be.

MARTIN: Girl, what a sea change that would be.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and she blogs and writes opinion pieces for U.S. News and World Report. Thank you both for being here.

KATE CARY: Thanks for having us.

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