ATLANTA — Between candidate qualifying and the May 20 primary, a number of women candidates disappeared from the Republican slate, raising the question of whether the GOP has a gender problem.
Women with olitical experience ran for Congress and the state superintendent of schools, but none made it to a runoff or nomination. Among them was Karen Handel, former secretary of state running for the Senate. Running for Congress were Tricia Pridemore, director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development and former candidate for state party chairwoman, and Donna Sheldon, the state House GOP caucus chairwoman. Trying for superintendent were Mary Kay Bacallao and Nancy Jester, who had won seats on local school boards.
Handel brought up the issue during a press conference to announce her endorsement of former rival Jack Kingston.
“Not a single woman at the state level in federal races advanced. That is an issue that the GOP needs to work on and address in a productive way,” she said.
Asked if it would harm Kingston’s chances against Democrat Michelle Nunn and Libertarian Amanda Swafford if he gets the nod, Handel predicted it would not, because he promised her to have key women staffers.
“I think also that women will look at who Jack surrounds himself with as he goes forward,” Handel said. “... And I’m confident that Jack and I will be able to work together on that.”
For his part, Kingston also sounded confident, relying on the party’s standard formulation.
“What I’ve found with female voters is they’re interested in opportunities; they’re interested in jobs; they’re interested in a competent government healthcare system, political freedom, and that’s all part of the message that Karen and I together have been working on,” he said. “We believe a unified front on the issues that matter is what voters are going to listen to regardless of their gender.”
Interestingly, in the Democratic primary, whenever there was a choice, a female candidate won. As a result, Democrats will have women nominees for Senate, lieutenant governor, superintendent, secretary of state, labor commissioner and insurance commissioner. Only the unopposed men running for governor, attorney general, public service commissioner and agriculture commissioner advanced.
Yet, no one is asking if Democrats have a male problem.
Much has been made of the racial bifurcation of the parties but less so about gender. When it comes up, it’s usually stated as the Republicans’ failure to appeal to women voters rather than the Democrats’ challenge with men.
Republican operatives argue that in the cases of the women in this year’s Georgia primary, the men who defeated them were simply better situated. Pridemore lost a chance for the runoff to a former congressman and a sitting state senator. Sheldon might have been a legislator, but her district was only a tiny bit of the congressional district she was running in, losing to the son of the area’s former congressman and a popular radio host. Neither woman was the top fundraiser.
“The candidates that did raise money had actual political history or came from the dominate part of the district,” said Mark Rountree, a GOP campaign strategist.
Eric Tanenblatt, a major fundraiser for presidential campaigns and a key advisor to senior Republicans, notes that plenty of women are moving up the ranks of the party. The No. 2 in the state House leadership is Jan Jones, and Renee Unterman is a powerful state Senate committee chairwoman.
The challenge for both parties is to craft messages that appeal to the demographic mix of their primaries while not alienating independents in the general election. That gets more difficult as the electorate aligns itself on the basis of gender.