Running for president while female

2020 presidential hopefuls testing differing strategies to interest voters

Harris
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
From left: Kamala Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff, Harris, holding her niece’s daughter Amara Ajagu, 2, and the rest of her family and friends. They were on stage as she waves to the crowd at the end of her speech at her presidential campaign rally in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 27.

BY JANET HOOK
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

WASHINGTON – When Elizabeth Warren launched her 2012 Senate bid in Massachusetts, some Democrats there worried. Another woman had run two years earlier and failed miserably. But Warren ignored warnings that she would be “another Martha Coakley.”

She beat the incumbent by more than 7 percentage points and became the first woman elected to statewide office in Massachusetts.

Now Warren is among a record number of women running for president in 2020. Again, they’re operating in the shadow of failure — Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful White House bid in 2016 — but also the widespread successes of women in the 2018 midterm elections.

The gender card

Sen. Kamala Harris of California joins Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the upper tier of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Each takes a different tack in navigating the powerful crosscurrents of being a woman in national politics.

Gillibrand plays the gender card most emphatically, emphasizing her record on protecting women from sexual assault and her support for female candidates. Explaining why she is running for president, she often begins, “As a young mom … ”

Harris’ campaign rollout, including a Jan. 27 kickoff rally in Oakland, focused more on her connections with the Black community and a career in law enforcement that breaks from gender stereotypes.

Varied approaches

Warren tells her story as the daughter of an economically struggling family, putting class, not gender, at the center of her campaign.

“There is no uniform approach to how these women will navigate gender in the campaign,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“While Gillibrand sees and discusses politics and policy through a gender lens, Warren’s primary focus has been on class. In her rollout, Kamala Harris has already shown that she will embrace and discuss being a Black woman in power.”

The sexism strain

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii also has announced a long-shot bid for president, with considerable focus on her status as a military veteran. The field of female candidates may grow if Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a former prosecutor like Harris, decides to run.

“I love that fact that we have four women running, and that America gets to see what different forms of female leadership look like,” Gillibrand said.

‘Still tougher’

Women historically have had a harder time winning executive offices than legislative ones. Even with a record number of women running for governor in 2018, just nine of the nation’s 50 governors are now women.

“Solo leadership is still tougher for women and people of color,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is an expert on women in politics. “There is still a little concern about the difficulty of electing women to executive office. That wasn’t just Hillary Clinton.”

But for Democrats in 2020, for the first time in the history of presidential campaigns, being a woman is probably more a political asset than a liability.

Clinton’s tactic

Women — as voters and candidates — became the vanguard of the party’s resistance to President Donald Trump, from the 2017 Women’s March to the midterm elections that drew out female candidates in record numbers.

The congressional midterms saw the largest gender gap in modern political history, as Democrats won 59 percent of the female vote, with just 40 percent voting Republican. Men, by contrast, favored Republicans by a 4-point margin, 51 percent to 47 percent, according to exit polls.

Clinton tried two very different approaches to gender as a political issue. When she sought the Democratic nomination in 2008, she essentially ran away from the subject.

“I am not running as a woman,” she would say. “I am running because I believe I am the best qualified and experienced person.”

Eight years later, she talked often about the history-making potential of her campaign to “shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”

The current crop of female candidates doesn’t follow either of those paths.

Harris on racism

Harris’ introduction to voters put more of a spotlight on race than gender: She announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, gave her first press briefing at Howard University, the historically Black college she attended in the 1980s, and scheduled her first campaign event in South Carolina — at a gala for [Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.], a Black sorority she belongs to.

During her Oakland rally, Harris spoke bluntly about racism in the criminal justice system and society at large. “I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him or kill him because of his race,” Harris said.

Harris’ tough-on-crime record has drawn skepticism from some on the party’s left, but it could appeal to public safety-conscious moms in the suburbs, including White women whose votes for Trump proved pivotal in 2016.

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