2010 Midterm Elections: 'The Year Of The Woman?'

The 2010 midterm election was supposed to be a second coming of the "Year of the Woman," but the actual results didn't support that. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News & World Report and Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority about how women fared in the elections and the "grandmother" vote.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

You may have heard about this, you may be living this. Right now, according to federal numbers, some 300,000 people with college degrees are waiting tables. And that might not be what they really want to do. It's called bridge employment, and we'll talk with our money coach about how to manage these kind of jobs, what pays the bills, but doesn't damage your chances at what you really want to do. That conversation is a little later in the program.

But first, we want to talk about women. We keep hearing about how this could have been another year of the woman, or perhaps the year of the Republican woman, a watershed year like 1992 when women substantially increased their numbers in top elected positions.

In the run up to last week's vote, we previously made note of the historic number of women running for office. For example, a record 298 women candidates in House and Senate primary races.

We wanted to talk about how that actually turned out, so we've called Mary Kate Cary. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for coming back.

Ms. ELLIE SMEAL (President, Feminist Majority Foundation): Good to be here.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist and Blogger, U.S. News and World Report): Yeah, thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So let's just review some of the numbers. We know that four candidates won governors races - all Republicans. Susana Martinez, New Mexico; Nikki Haley, South Carolina; Mary Fallon of Oklahoma, and incumbent governor Jan Brewer of Arizona. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire won a Senate race. And there are still contests to close to call.

But even if women prevail in all five of the undecided races, the number of women in Congress in total will actually not increase. That's no increase in the number of women in Congress for the first time in 30 years. So, Mary Kate Cary, I'll start with you because you're the Republican of the group. And you get to crow nicely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So, no net increase overall, but advances for Republican women. For example, there are eight Republican women freshmen coming to the House. So, is this a wash? Is this a great year for women? We're talking about for women.

Ms. CARY: For women overall, you're right, there is no net gain in the Senate either. We're holding steady at 17 women in the Senate. But the House GOP caucus for women has a 40 percent increase in their membership. And that's huge for Republicans. I think it's good for women, too. I think this was the year that, you know, Democratic women lost, but Republican women won. And I don't think we should think that's a bad thing at all.

Of course, both parties need to ask, why didn't more women win of those 298 women candidates you just cited? And that's an interesting question for both sides going forward.

MARTIN: Well, we'll talk about that in a minute. But why do you think this is good for women overall?

Ms. CARY: I think it shows that women are not a monolithic block necessarily. And that the historically huge gender gap, which Ellie knows a lot about, is starting to shift a little, I think. And women aren't necessarily, maybe they weren't in the first place single issue voters. But I think there is more of a concern on fiscal responsibility and the future for our children. And that is what is causing the sands to shift a little.

MARTIN: Is that - Ellie Smeal, talk about that. I mean, the gender gap, I don't know why people generally think of women when they think gender gap because there's a gender gap for men, too, since the Reagan era that women have tended to trend Democratic and men have tended to trend Republican. This is really for white voters particularly because African-American voters and Latino voters tend to trend Democratic overall. So, tell us overall, was this a good year for women overall? A bad year for women overall? Or just a wash?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, for the gender gap, actually it was very prominent in almost all races that were close. They only do these exit polls on the Senate races and the gubernatorial races so you don't know exactly what happened at the district level.

But if you look at state after state, the women did tend to vote more Democratic than men. Not as much as in the past, but they still had that trend. And in key races where Democrats won, they won because they had the majority of women's votes. So it's still very, very important.

MARTIN: Why did the gender gap narrow? Why did the preference for Democrats among women decrease this year, in your view?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, it decreased in some states and that's the important thing. I think it did because the economic issues were dominant. The social issues were not. By the way, we're the social issues...

MARTIN: But isn't that reason why women have tended to trend toward Democratic in the same reason that African-Americans overall do because they generally prefer the Democratic point of view on using the government to address economic issues?

Ms. SMEAL: You're absolutely right. You're absolutely right. But the issue that dominated, it appears, is the job issue, which did have much of a gender gap in it. However, and this is the key, where candidates did appeal on the social issues, where they did emphasize Social Security and Medicare, the women's vote went back up and more towards the Democrats.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

I'm talking about how women faired in the midterm elections that were held last week. I'm speaking with Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report.

Mary Kate, one of the things that got a lot of attention was the spending. And in California, two women using their own substantial fortunes, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, one running for governor, one running for the Senate, it got a lot of attention - the size of the spending, the fact that these are two women who were able to use their own money to fund their own campaigns and both of them lost badly. Do you draw any conclusions from this?

Ms. CARY: Well, in the past, I think there was sort of a loophole in the campaign spending laws for self-funded candidates. And so there have always been rich people running for House, Senate, governor's races, throwing a ton of money in.

What was a little different this year was not that those two were self funded, because that's happened before in the past, it was that other people were the beneficiaries of outside spending from these 527s and these C4, C3 groups.

MARTIN: Ellie?

Ms. SMEAL: You have to be a C4, but the big key here is business to put in. Remember, business now is - a corporation is now a person, so the business money was quite heavy.

Ms. CARY: And that leveled the playing field in a lot of races where newcomers would not necessarily have been able to get on the air as fast as the incumbents were.

MARTIN: As long as they were pro-business.

Ms. CARY: Right.

MARTIN: As long as they were perceived as friendly toward business.

Ms. CARY: In this case - right. And in this case, most of the incumbents were Democrats. So that provided the edge for a lot of Republican newcomers.

MARTIN: Did gender, in your view, play a role in those races? I mean Carly Fiorina was running against another woman, Barbara Boxer. Meg Whitman was running against Jerry Brown, who's a, you know, obviously a very well known figure in California politics. Do you think gender played a role?

Ms. CARY: I think the numbers we've been looking at from the Center for American Women in Politics, the numbers there show that women do not necessarily vote for a woman just because they're wearing a skirt. And that I think is a good thing in the long run. Those women were not running as women and saying, vote for me, I'm a woman.

So, just like a lot of minorities won, who didn't say, vote for me, I'm a minority, I think it became larger than that, and part of this Republican wave about the economy and jobs and what their stands were on those issues.

MARTIN: Ellie Smeal, what do you think?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, they also had a problem. They were both running - and it was very well known - against key women's issues, such as abortion. They're both extreme on the issue, especially Carly. And so that cut into them. And not only did that, remember, the Latino vote cut heavily into them. It went over 2-to-1 for the Democrats.

So you had both a gender gap, more women voting their issues - not gender, but their issues, especially in the Jerry Brown campaign. But Barbara Boxer is known as a champion for women's issues. And that, I think, played very heavily - played with her for women's votes and she got more of them.

MARTIN: Eleanor Smeal, do you think in terms of overall numbers in Congress, the representation of women is flat and hasn't changed for the first time in 30 years? Does that bother you? What is your perspective on this?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, I think it's a tragedy, because basically you have United States now is dropping something like 80th in the world parliaments for the lack of representation of women. And so, I think that both Republican and Democratic women have one major problem right now, we're totally underrepresented.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, because the parties are still male dominated. It's very hard to - we usually have a primary challenge, a woman, a newcomer, as well as a general and basically I think the rules are still very negative to women. And I do think that we got to do something affirmative.

MARTIN: Well, give an example of why do you think the rules are very negative toward women.

Ms. SMEAL: Well, in everywhere else, there is some guarantee that there will equal representation of women in this world. We do not have any guarantee of equal representation. Although you can see in the exit polling, you can see not only in this exit polling, there is a different gender perspective on many issues because the issues affect women differently than men.

I believe, for example, family planning, let's just take an issue where I think there's absolute consensus in this country. It would be totally different in the Congress if that Congress was 50 percent women. And we wouldn't debate whether it should be a part of preventive care or not. I mean, obviously it is. I mean, you know.

MARTIN: Are you speaking specifically about abortion? Or are you speaking about contraception?

Ms. SMEAL: I said, no, I said contraception on purpose because I know and you know that isn't controversial in this country. Yet you would think it is by looking at what's happening. I mean, you have a health care system where women are still paying 50 percent more for the same health care insurance. This new reform bill would correct that, but I tell you that would have corrected a long time before if we would be half women. So the underrepresentation of women I think affects all women negatively.

MARTIN: Okay. Mary Kate, what about you? Do you think, overall, when you look at the overall picture, was this a good year or not? I know it's a good year for Republican women in some ways.

Ms. CARY: Yeah, I can crow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In some ways.

Ms. CARY: No, I think it's good to have these historic numbers, even though, you know, to you guys it's on the Republican side, of women who were willing to throw their hat in the ring for the first time. And I think that's always a good thing. There's so many obstacles to women running for office, some of them which are self-imposed. You know, oh, I'm not qualified. You know, all things being equal, if you have two - a man and a woman with the exact same qualifications, nine times out of ten, the woman will say, oh, I'm not qualified to run for office. And they don't.

So I think that when you factor in the kids, the commuting, the hours. You know, look at Claire McCaskill, she's got nine kids in a blended family in St. Louis that are all in school in St. Louis. She's got a husband and she's got a grandma helping with the kids. But she goes back and forth every weekend. Most women say, thanks but not thanks.

And so until there are sort of some lifestyle changes on Capitol Hill, or in the statehouses, whether we make them part-time legislators or we take the summer off or whatever it is, I think there are a lot of, you know, sort of institutional obstacles to more women running for office.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a journalist with U.S. News and World Report. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's also a blogger. Eleanor Smeal is president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much.

Ms. SMEAL: Thank you.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

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