Be Good at the Game, but not Captive of it
“I am an outsider…I am not a good old boy and I’m never going to be a good old boy. And those guys who really count on the good old boys have always had a problem with me and I’ve always had a problem with them.”
It’s About ‘Who You Know’
According to polling and focus groups, voters view women as political outsiders and above “politics as usual.” While being thought of as an outsider can benefit women candidates, it also can leave them out of critical circles of influence and decision-making within their own political parties.
Interviews reveal that skillfully navigating the party system remains an important avenue to power in many states. Candidates often described an old boy network dominating their state party structure, and stressed the importance of women making connections within that network. The trick for women candidates is getting all the advantages of party connections without losing the benefits voters associate with their “outsider” candidacies.
“One [of the campaign’s weaknesses] would be that we weren’t enough of the good old boy system to incur their favor, to incur their assistance,” said one candidate. Another candidate added: “They [state party leaders] were not ‘anti,’ they didn’t do anything against me, but they didn’t do anything [for me].”
Party Trumps Gender
Successful female gubernatorial candidates have a working relationship with the top party operatives in their state, but they haven’t sacrificed their credibility with the public to develop these connections.
This party association is important for candidates. Exit polls from 1998 races for governor show that party affiliation is more influential for voters than any other factor – including gender.
The advantage of party affiliation, however, does not weigh equally for Republican and Democratic candidates. Voters think of a Republican woman as Republican first, woman second. Democratic women are more often seen as a woman first, then as a Democrat.
As detailed in the chart below, voters trust Republican candidates more than Democratic candidates – regardless of gender – on fiscal issues such as keeping taxes down and handling a budget deficit.
As one campaign consultant corroborated, “If you’re a [female] Republican, you’re going to have a much better shot at it, probably, because at least you’re not going to have these stereotypes running into each other, where you’re a woman and a Democrat.”
Four of the six most recent women governors have been Republicans.
Women Governors Can Count
Successful women governors have had a strong base of support within their parties and a clear sense of their allies and adversaries in their legislatures. Often, legislative leadership positions required these women to manage the legislative process, giving them inside connections and seasoning invaluable to a governor.
Ella Grasso was the Democratic floor leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives, Barbara Roberts was the Democratic majority leader in the Oregon House of Representatives and Republican Jane Dee Hull was both the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives and the majority whip.
In 1993, Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey unseated an incumbent. One of her first moves as governor was to pass major tax reform through a cautious legislature, including a substantial income tax cut on an aggressive schedule. Although her Republican colleagues in the legislature sometimes feigned public resistance, she knew she had the votes and pushed her legislation forward. Currently head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Whitman has always been regarded as an honest official who was able to cut tough deals.
“Everybody is just so aggravated and frustrated with what’s going on … we are looking for a change. Maybe a woman is the person who’s going to bring a change. We’ve had the men all of these years….”
– Focus Group Participant
- Emphasize the positive. Confirm voters’ presumption of honest, ethical leadership attributed to women by running positive campaigns, adopting ethical finance practices and highlighting reforms you instituted.
- Take an active role in party affairs. Recruit high-quality candidates, provide endorsements and raise money.
- Develop an informal “kitchen cabinet” of advisors whose points of view run from party loyalists to outside reformers. Consult them regularly.
- Raise money, and do it all the time. Lead fundraising efforts for your allies, for national candidates and for charity. Solicit from the business community, from issue advocates and from women’s organizations. The most important measure of a candidate’s seriousness is her proven ability to raise money. If you can, party leaders will take you seriously. If you can’t, they won’t.