After the 2008 election, one of the first books that made the rounds of the daytime news shows came from none other than John McCain’s daughter, Meghan. Of particular interest to the talking heads in the wake of Barack Obama’s win was the enigmatic, rogue-designee Sarah Palin. Meghan had some choice words for her father’s running mate, saying:
I was waiting for her to explode. There was a fine line between genius and insanity, they say, and choosing her as the running mate was starting to seem like the definition of that line.
Many pundits soon followed, casting doubt on Palin’s ability to manage her own campaign, assailing her readiness for leadership, and questioning her competence—the same general terrain taken up by Democrats in the election itself. Fast forward to 2010, after the midterm elections. Politico ran an article recently about Sharron Angle’s Senate campaign in Nevada, and it is a more than a little déjà vu in tone. I started wondering if there were any real similarities, and figured that for good measure, I’d take a look at what the political pundits are also saying about Christine O’Donnell, failed GOP contender for the junior Senator seat from Delaware. Was I just having a psychic whiplash, or were there any patterns in these three different races?
Were there ever. What follows isn’t an analysis of what political operatives or candidates should have done differently, how things might have turned out, or if this is a broader-spectrum (e.g., did any of this happen to any female Democratic candidates this year). In this admittedly narrow frame of losing GOP, highly visible female candidate campaigns, I note the following:
The failed campaigns are marked by tensions between grassroots, activist-heavy volunteer corps, and insider, mainstream-affiliated party operatives. Politico’s report on Angle’s campaign included several mentions of GOP longtime strategists finding ways to get her campaign manager Terry Campbell, an active Tea Party coordinator, out of the center of the action so that they could make decisions without his interference. McCain’s campaign staff and advisors made mention, in the wake of the 2008 election, that they’d had trouble reining in Palin and her closest advisers, and that missteps, like the leaked information about how the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on a new wardrobe for the VP candidate, made apparent the rift between the DC insiders and the rural image Palin sought to project. And out in Delaware this year, traditional GOP money dried up during the general election phase for Christine O’Donnell, which generally doesn’t happen when the party is behind its candidates. So although the overall tone of the media reporting hyped the typhoon-sized wave of Tea Party influence within the Republican Party, these losses suggest that the shift could be overstated.
The candidates had an inordinately strong loyalty to their closest advisors instead of knowing directly how national campaigns work. Perhaps Sharron Angle shouldn’t have placed such trust in the decision making of a man who thought that skywriting her name over Nevada was a great use of funds and somehow wouldn’t smack of the Wicked Witch of the West. Sarah Palin was very underprepared for her interview with Katie Couric, and any candidate at that level should not have been that derailed in primetime. Christine O’Donnell bounced from one set of advisers to another, letting Palin’s people prepare her for her sole debate with Chris Coons, and by all accounts she did not come close to winning that debate (or the election itself).
The campaigns relied on the idea that these candidates could demonstrate how affable conservative values and women were, but were marked by sexist portrayals of the candidates on all fronts. Sarah Palin’s entry into the national election in 2008 included a Photoshopped image of her in a bikini toting a rifle, and while this wasn’t put out by her or McCain’s staff, other images of womanhood were generated by her and highlighted from summer until fall—including hockey moms who were just a shade of Revlon away from being pit bulls‚ images that took time away from campaigning on issues. Angle told Harry Reid to “man up,” during their debate and repeated it afterward, suggesting that she was more man for the job than he was, a specifically anti-woman stance to take. O’Donnell cast herself into a new defintion of “feminist,” explaining that she used the term for herself because “I celebrate my femininity.” Although each of these women had a familiar list of GOP and also Tea Party talking points—they all swore they honor and adore the Constitution, for example—the way in which they spoke of themselves and their opponents belied the limitations of ultra-conservative politics for women. In 2004, O’Donnell herself said, in an interview to the News Journal in Delaware, that “I’m a conservative woman, but many conservative men really are chauvinistic.”
Each candidate gave a litany of awful sound bites that the press was free to use throughout their campaigns as evidence that they were not ready to govern. Just a sampling:
Well, let’s see. There’s―of course in the great history of America there have been rulings that there’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American, and there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So, you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but… —Sarah Palin, unable to name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with other than Roe vs. Wade, interview with Katie Couric, CBS News, Oct. 1, 2008
As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where–where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. —Sarah Palin, during the 2008 campaign
I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out. —Sharron Angle, in a radio interview with Lars Larson, 2010
They [Republicans] say, ‘You’re too conservative.’ Was Thomas Jefferson too conservative? I’m tired of some people calling me wacky. —Sharron Angle, March 2010
I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you. —Christine O’Donnell, 2010 campaign ad
We worked hard, we had an incredible victory. Be encouraged. We have won. The Delaware political system will never be the same. —Christine O’Donnell, 2010 concession speech.
Each of these and more gave credence to many people who repeated the statements over and over, scaring away mainstream voters and independents, and spawning thousands of websites with titles like “Sarah Palin’s Dumbest Quotes,” “The Craziest Things Sharron Angle Has Said,” and “The 13 Dumbest Things Christine O’Donnell Has Said.” While O’Donnell’s history of launching campaigns in her home state has created a long line of quotes going back to the late 1990s, all three of these candidates seemed unprepared when the cameras were rolling and the microphones live. And whereas male Tea Party candidates generated fear when they made extreme right-wing remarks—here I’m thinking of Ken Buck, Rand Paul, and Joe Miller—these women were mocked as stupid and crazy.
There is certainly a lot to unpack and deconstruct around the 2010 midterm elections, and sure enough, many political analysts will be doing just that as people will soon begin constructing exploratory committees for the 2012 presidential election. These races, and the successful Tea Party candidate races will certainly receive scrutiny from GOP operatives in order to avoid repeating their failures, but as long as there are voters willing to launch non-insider, grassroots female candidates into general elections on the national stage, mainstream Republicans will have to “deal with” these women. And feminists will be watching to see how these women are treated and how these elections affect the labels of feminist and woman.