Women candidates put gender, family and surviving abuse at forefront of midterm campaigns

June 26, 2018

USA TODAY: Women candidates put gender, family and surviving abuse at forefront of midterm campaigns

By Fredreka Schouten 

In one ad, a House contender from Illinois recalls trying to fight off a molester who crept into her childhood bedroom at night. In another, a gubernatorial candidate in Nevada speaks about sex abuse she endured as an 8-year-old. Women running for governor in Maryland and Wisconsin decided to breastfeed their infant daughters while the cameras rolled.

As female candidates run in record numbers for elective office in this year’s midterm elections, they are changing the traditional campaign scripts – taking on once-taboo topics and pushing gender to the forefront of their political campaigns and advertising.

They have altered the way campaigns operate day-to-day. This month, for instance, ethics commissions in Alabama and Wisconsin followed the lead of the Federal Election Commission and approved requests made by female candidates to use their campaign funds for child care expenses.

Women are “shaking up the rules of the game,” Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University and a scholar at its Center for American Women and Politics. “For too long, the expectation was that women should adapt to the ‘masculine’ credentials of the job and prove that you are tough, don’t show your kids and prevent any possibility that voters think you can’t do the job.”

Kelda Roys, a Democratic former state legislator running for Wisconsin governor, said she had no plans to breastfeed her infant daughter in a campaign commercial.

But her family was in the room as she taped a series of biographical campaign videos. Her 4-month-old daughter, Avalon, began to cry as Roys described her successful effort to ban the chemical Bisphenol A in baby bottles and sippy cups in the state.

“I reached for her and sort of kept going because that’s what I normally do,” said Roys, who owns a high-tech real estate brokerage.

She decided the footage made sense for a commercial. “If we want to have women in leadership positions at anywhere the rate that we have men, then we have to understand that women are whole, complete people,” Roys said.

The ad, she said, helped put a spotlight on the race.

Last week, EMILYs List, a national group that backs Democratic female candidates, announced it would throw its financial muscle behind Roys in her bid to oust the state’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The Democratic primary is in mid-August.

Democrat Krish Vignarajah said it was “no accident” that her ad for Maryland governor featured her breastfeeding her daughter Alana. “For me, it was an important symbol that we are going to own the fact that we are running as women.”

Vignarajah, who worked as policy director to first lady Michelle Obama, made her gender a calling card in a Democratic primary that pitted her against an all-male field that fought to take on the state’s popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

“Some say no man can beat Larry Hogan,” she says in the ad. “Well, I’m no man. I’m a mom. I’m a woman. And I want to be your next governor.”

The first-time candidate lost the primary Tuesday to former NAACP chief Ben Jealous. Jealous would become the state's first African-American governor if elected.

Record numbers
A record 61 women, including Vignarajah and Roys, filed for gubernatorial races this year, besting a previous high of 34 set in 1994, according to data by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

Women running for Congress have set records, too: 468 have filed for the House, surpassing a record of 298 set six years ago, and 51 have filed for the Senate, beating the previous high of 40 in 2016.

Among the women running: Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who became the state's second female governor in 2017 when she replaced fellow Republican Robert Bentley, who resigned.

Ivey's ads focus on grit.

One touts her move to keep the state's Confederate monuments standing.

In another ad, she fires off a handgun at a shooting range. Two nearby men describe her strengths, calling her “tough as nails” and a “straight shooter.”

But Democrats are driving the big wave of women running for office this year. They account for nearly three out of four female candidates who filed to run for the House and nearly two out of three women running for governor.

Some have produced searing ads.

In Nevada, Chris Giunchigliani  – a former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for the Democrats' gubernatorial nomination – got personal after getting attacked for helping exempt teachers from a sex-offender reporting bill. Her 30-second ad described her yearlong sexual abuse when she was 8. Her sister, she said, was kidnapped, held in a trailer and raped for three days.

Democrat Sol Flores, who lost her bid for a House seat in Illinois, turned her childhood trauma into a story of resilience. Her 30-second ad recalled her as an 11-year-old building a chest as a school project. She said she would fill the chest with heavy objects and shove it against her bedroom door at night to give her a fighting chance against her abuser.

“I'll fight as hard for you in Congress as I did to protect myself,” Flores said as the ad ended.

Going viral
Mark Putnam, a veteran admaker whose Democratic-aligned firm produced Flores'  commercial, said voters view women candidates as more empathetic than men and better equipped to handle social issues. He said women running for office also need to display their strength to voters skeptical of their toughness and management skills.

“Voters want to be reassured that you understand their lives,” Putnam said, “but they also want to know that you are going to stand up for them.”

Another campaign video from his firm that explores both those themes has gone viral, garnering more than 3.7 millions views on YouTube and Facebook combined as of Monday evening.

In it, MJ Hegar, a Democrat and a decorated Air Force veteran running for a Texas seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, takes viewers on a journey through her life.

She's a little girl at her mother's side fleeing domestic violence. She's a shot-down pilot in Afghanistan who has strapped herself to the skids of a rescue helicopter and returns fire on the Taliban as she's lifted to safety. She's an advocate who successfully challenged the military's ban on women serving in ground combat. 

At the end of the ad, she hoists one of her children into her arms and takes aim at her rival, eight-term Republican Rep. John Carter, who won his previous election by nearly 22 percentage points.

“Congressman Carter hasn't had a tough race his entire career,” Hegar said. “So, we'll show him tough. Then, we'll show him the door.”