Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Women's Role in Iowa Politics Examined

Women's Role in Iowa Politics Examined

Mike Glover, the true dean of the Iowa press corps, looks at Women Not Winning In Iowa:

There's considerable frustration among activists. Campbell noted that Florida has an older population yet little hesitation sending women to Congress. Nebraska and Kansas are rural, too, but have had female governors.

"There have been women elected in far more conservative states than Iowa," Campbell said. "It is a bit of a perplexing question."

"It may be the candidates," Conlin said. "It may be the right woman has not come along."

I wrote about that very question in the context of 1992 and 1994, and never followed up on 2002.

After the 2001 redistricting Iowa became one of the nation's hot spots. Because our districting process in more nonpartisan than anywhere else we emerged with four competitive races for five US House seats. In two of those contests the Democrats ran women - Ann Hutchinson against Jim Nussle in the 1st CD and Julie Thomas against Jim Leach in my 2nd CD. Both ran close. Both lost.

Hutchinson had some problems with party activists. She had been a registered Republican until shortly before the race, and her primary opponent was former congressman Dave Nagle, a lovable rogue who had seen some hard times in a very public struggle with alcoholism. There was some resentment in the ranks that the DCCC was clearly backing Hutchinson over a former House member and party chair on the issue of "electability," and a lot of residual sympathy for Nagle who had lost his seat to Nussle when the two were paired in the 1991 redistricting. How much of this resentment was sexism, and how much was a simple matter of the two individuals? Hard to say but Hutchinson won the primary. A year later she lost her re-election bid for Bettendorf mayor. Nagle has continued to function as an éminence grise in the Democratic Party.

I'm more familiar with the Thomas campaign. The party powerful pulled behind the scenes strings to clear the field for the Cedar Rapids doctor and the DCCC made the race a top priority. She was exactly their type of candidate - one who could raise a lot of money. It looked good - for a while.

Late in the campaign the Iraq war came to a vote. Tom Harkin, who was also up for re-election, voted yes and party activists were furious. But Harkin was in his usual tough race and there wasn't an instinct to punish him. Meanwhile, the house leadership had the votes they needed and Jim Leach cast a symbolic no vote. (Iowa's lone House Democrat, Leonard Boswell, voted yes.) Thomas came out against the war, but it was too little, too late. I still remember seeing the trio of signs: Peace, Harkin, Leach. The punishment for Harkin was votes for Leach over Thomas.

The DCCC also made the mistake of oversimplifying the race. They looked a party ID numbers and past elections for other offices and concluded that the path to victory was simple: just get out all the Democratic votes. Which we did, very well. But a quarter of those voters supported Leach, just as they have for nearly 30 years.

Did gender play a role? I'm treading on thin ice here but I'm thinking of one ad.

Leach has a hypocritical approach to advertising. The official Leach material is all positive and stresses "independence," yet he allows the Republican Party to do the dirty work. One party ad had a long, negative text about Thomas that I can't recall a word of. But the visual sticks in my mind. It's a slow motion clip of Thomas walking in a parade. Julie Thomas is a short and stocky woman. In her own advertising she emphasized her profession - it was always "Dr. Julie Thomas." Repeatedly I heard non-political people comment on her appearance in the Republican ad, usually with some variation on the theme of her body type and profession. Would they have said the same thing of a male doctor? That's hard to say, but I've never heard any similar comments about male candidates.

I'll stick to the analysis that this defeat had more to do with the unique appeal of Jim Leach than anything else - but I still wonder if that one ad, and the underlying issue of the physical appearance of women candidates - made the margin bigger.


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