Women and the 2010 Midterm Elections: A Mixed Bag

Women and the 2010 Midterm Elections: A Mixed Bag

By Beth Reingold and Jessica Harrell

Expectations about women’s role in the 2010 midterm elections were high following the historic election year of 2008, in which Hillary Clinton became the first woman to come close to receiving a major party nomination for president and Sarah Palin became the first woman to receive the Republican nomination for vice president. Noting the emergence of a new crop of high-profile Republican candidates such as Sharron Angle, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, and Christine O’Donnell, pundits speculated that the 2010 elections could become another “year of the woman,” signaling the start of a new era of influence for conservative women. But despite a promising start to the election season, women’s impact on the 2010 elections proved to be much smaller than expected, and the final outcome resulted in an overall loss of institutional power for women in both parties.

To be sure, there were some highlights for women in 2010. As the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) reports, record numbers of women filed to run in both U.S. Senate and House races. Thirty-six women (nineteen Democrats and seventeen Republicans) filed to run in Senate races, breaking the previous 1992 record of twenty-nine women. In the House, a record-shattering 262 women (134 Democrats, 128 Republicans) filed to run in House races, far surpassing the previous peak of 222 women set in 1992. Furthermore, a record-tying ten women ran in gubernatorial general elections, including two women of color, Nikki Haley in South Carolina (Indian American) and Susana Martinez in New Mexico (Latina). Haley and Martinez’s campaigns were particularly significant, as they won their races and became the first women of color to head state governments.

These gains in women’s participation came mostly from conservative, Republican women, many of whom were energized, at least in part, by the Tea Party movement. In a May 2010 Slate article, Hanna Rosin characterized the Tea Party as an “insta-network for aspiring female candidates,” noting that women play an active role in the organization and leadership of Tea Party groups across the country. According to Rosin’s calculations, “of the eight board members of the Tea Party Patriots who serve as national coordinators for the movement, six are women. Fifteen of the twenty-five state coordinators are women.” This involvement in Tea Party groups provided an important alternative path to electoral politics for outsiders such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, allowing them to bypass traditional party networks. Without the Tea Party network, it is doubtful that these women would have been able to overcome the gatekeeping powers of local Republican Party circles. (O’Donnell, in particular, never won widespread support of Republican leaders even in the general election.)

Nevertheless, even though the Tea Party movement provided inspiration and opportunity for conservative women, there were limits to the movement’s power and influence. First, despite the record number of Republican women who filed and ran in the primaries, only 37 percent (forty-seven women) won. CAWP director Debbie Walsh described Republican women’s difficulties in the primaries as a missed opportunity, noting that “in a year where there was such a Republican sweep, they simply did not have the kind of numbers of women running in the general [election] to take advantage of that sweep and increase their numbers.” But Republican women’s troubles were not limited to the primaries. Many of the more prominent conservative women running in the 2010 general elections were unable to pull off victories on election day. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Linda McMahon in Connecticut all lost their respective races. Even established Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin fell somewhat short on election day. Among the twenty-seven “mama grizzlies” Palin endorsed in 2010, only about half went on to win in the general election, proving that her endorsements were no guarantee of victory despite her kingmaker reputation in the media.

The conservative, Republican momentum was also not strong enough to close or substantially alter the gender gap in voting, despite suggestions that growing discontent with Democrats and President Obama and the appeal of Republican women candidates could entice women to abandon the Democratic Party. An October 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll found that a majority of women favored Republican candidates, prompting journalists to speculate over the possible end of the gender gap. The New York Times reported that “if women choose Republicans over Democrats in House races, it will be the first time they have done so since exit polls began tracking the breakdown in 1982.” However, according to research by CAWP, the gender gap in voting preferences “was at least as evident in 2010, a year of substantial Republican gains, as it was in 2008, a year when Democrats were elected in large numbers.” Although there was a general trend among women voters toward Republicans in the 2010 election, they remained less likely than men to support Republican candidates. Even as men strongly supported Republican candidates over Democratic ones, women tended to split their votes between Republicans and Democrats. And this pattern held regardless of the gender of the candidates. Consistent with previous elections, women did not cross party lines to support women candidates such as Linda McMahon and Carly Fiorina. In short, even with a shift toward Republicans among the general electorate, the gender gap was still alive and well in 2010. 

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 2010 elections is women’s loss of power in both Congress and state legislatures. For the first time since 1979, the number of women serving in Congress has dropped. Though the number of women in the Senate remains the same (seventeen), the number of women in the House has declined from seventy-three to seventy-two. More important, with Republicans taking control of the House in 2011, women have fewer leadership positions. The first female House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, along with three female Democratic committee chairs, lost leadership positions in the new 112th Congress, while only one woman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, currently chairs a committee in the House. Without more Republican women in leadership positions to compensate for these Democratic losses, women’s overall political influence is weakened in the new Republican-controlled House.

Women also lost ground in state legislatures. In 2010, women made up 24.5 percent of all state legislators in the U.S. (out of a total of 7,382), but after the midterm election, that percentage dropped to 23.3 percent (CAWP). This is only the second time the number of women serving in state legislatures has declined, the first instance occurring in 2003. And with Republicans gaining majority control of more state legislatures, it is likely that women have lost institutional power at the state level as well—if only because there are fewer Republican than Democratic women available to fill those state legislative leadership positions.

In sum, the elections of 2010 were a far cry from the historic firsts of 2008. Rather than steadily building upon the momentum generated by Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s presidential and vice presidential bids, 2010 represented a mixed bag of both successes and setbacks for women. It remains to be seen whether some of the positive developments for women in 2010 can be translated into greater success in 2012. No matter how positive or negative the overall trends are, however, one thing will most likely remain the same: women’s electoral fortunes and institutional power will continue to be, as they always have been, closely intertwined with those of the Democratic and Republican Parties. The Tea Party phenomenon of 2010 also reminds us that women pursue a diverse array of alternative paths to political leadership—paths that span the ideological spectrum, from the most liberal to the most conservative.

Beth Reingold is an associate professor with a joint appointment in the departments of political science and women’s studies. Jessica Harrell is a PhD candidate in political science.