Stephanie Davidson/Bloomberg

10 Takeaways From the War On, By, and For Women

The candidates didn't all win—but 2014 was a year when politics was feminized.

There was a great moment during the election coverage when Rachel Maddow had this to blurt: “Scott Brown! The first man in history to lose races to two different women!”

Progress comes with baby steps. There was also this: Chris Matthews gushing to Amy Klobuchar, “Everybody likes you! The national media likes you. Everybody that knows you in your state likes you!” And at the end of the interview, “Thank you, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who everybody actually does like.”

It was another takeaway from the past election: Women. They’re not just likeable enough anymore. Particularly on the Republican side, where women candidates kicked ass. From hog castrator, National Guard lieutenant colonel, and former Hardee’s biscuit-maker Joni Ernst’s rout of Bruce Braley in Iowa, to that funny thing that happened in Utah, where Mia Love, the Mormon daughter of Haitian immigrants, became the first black Republican female elected to Congress. You don’t see these kinds of resumes at the Miss America Pageant.

The feminizing of the 2014 midterm elections was done very deliberately. The GOP aggressively courted women like Ernst and Love and Shelley Moore Capito, in large part as a reaction to the so-called War on Women, promulgated relentlessly by the Democrats. A few hours before the polls closed, GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway gleefully predicted: “It will surely be the most awful night for the War on Women, which has taken a huge hit this cycle. Killing it was one of our tasks from the RNC. Anxious to see the dividends tonight.” 

And the GOP’s female slate allowed for a positive spin, too. “Republicans rarely get credit for much,” says Fox News’ Dana Perino, “but this year, if you care about more women participating in politics as candidates running for office, then the GOP deserves some praise on this issue”

2014 was definitely a Year of the Woman—but it had multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings. Below, a parsing:

1. Both parties are finally getting with the program.

Those gazillion studies and polls about how women should be taken more seriously, both as voters and as candidates? The political class is listening. Both parties made a concerted effort in this election to recruit more women candidates. And it’s about time. As Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway points out, “Women have made up the majority of the electorate since 1964, so every single midterm and presidential election in the last 50 years has been decided by women.” It’s also true that women are slightly more likely to vote for a woman, all other things equal—just as men are slightly more likely to vote for a man. But “what’s really interesting about women candidates this year,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, “is they were recruited to contest some of the most difficult races. You saw women recruited in the south, which is a difficult area for Democrats. You saw Republicans recruit women to try and win and to try to deal with their so-called War on Women. So you saw women strategically recruited by both parties to solve other problems they had.” Says Republican operative Juleanna Glover, “Let's just say that conservative women are the key to defeating Dems in red/purple states and will be a reliable recipe going forward.”

2. Women still wait to be asked.

When it comes to female candidates, “recruit” is the key word. “The number one reason why a woman runs for office is because someone asked her to,” says Conway. “Because someone has suggested, ‘Hey, you’d be good at this.’ Men never wait to be asked. They wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and see the next United States senator.”

3. Women make fewer gaffes.

We are not just talking about the decorum of the women we elect to office once they get there. (Do women tweet their junk? No. Do they hike the Appalachian Trail? Not that we know of.) We are talking about their behavior on the campaign trail. It is, for the most part, civilized, mannerly, poised, careful, and cautious. (With the exception of the ads their hired guns produce.) In the midterm elections, the most egregious gaffe by a woman was Alison Lundergan Grimes’s absurd decision—in an otherwise brave race against new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—to refuse to say whether she voted for the President. (Um, who else would you have voted for, Alison, given that you were an Obama delegate in 2012?) Voters don’t like that kind of insincerity, especially women voters—pollsters will tell you perceived phoniness is one of the biggest red flags with women.

4. They can be too careful.

Many of the women candidates this year—particularly on the Democratic side (aka the losing side)—were cautious to the point of boredom. “They had their socks in their mouths, absolutely,” says Conway. Even their press operations—which one would think would be open to the media, particularly in tight races--operated like it was the Normandy invasion and everything that was happening was super top secret and the candidate was in a bubble. Which begs the question: Do we really want to elect a bunch of women who are too scared to talk to the press? We didn’t, as it turns out. The most cautious among them went down in flames (with the exception of Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire—though, for an incumbent, safety was probably the safest play).  So perhaps there is a lesson here. As Celinda Lake puts it, “Women are less risk-takers. And it can be good and it can be bad. My own view is, it’s good when women don’t risk us going to war at the drop of a hat. But sometimes when you’re running behind in a campaign? That risk aversion may be actually more risky and more dangerous.”

5. Are women candidates better?

That’s a mixed bag. In a great many ways, as Celinda Lake puts it, women are better because they enjoy retail politics. They like meeting their constituents. However, they prefer actually doing the job to campaigning for it.

6. Women hate asking for money.

“And they have to get over that,” says Celinda Lake. But it is a very real problem. Women candidates have a harder time getting on the phone and asking for money. “Maybe it’s like how women hate asking for raises,” says Dana Perino. And that would be correct. Kellyanne Conway, whose firm has also done some polling for the grocery industry, sees it this way: “Did you ever watch women in a Trader Joe’s or a Costco? If you give them a bite sized sample? They go and buy the whole tray.  We just feel guilty. The men are munching and lunching, they go all through the store until their big bellies are full, and we’re buying the whole tray because we feel guilty that you gave us a toothpick with a sample!”

7. And speaking of money, pony up!

Despite the fact that women buy 51 percent of everything—cars, technology, etcetera—“we  don’t buy 51 percent of its politics,” says Lake. “Women donors write fewer and smaller checks. Because women see political giving as a splurge rather than an investment. We account for only about 25 percent of the contributions. ” Says Conway, from her own polling: “About 6 or 7 percent of women have ever given to a political campaign. They just don’t think it’s a good investment.” For women to prevail in the future, that has got to change.

8. They play nice with others.

A great many women—on both sides—believe that the more women elected into office, the more simpatico the process will be. Women are hardly there yet, number-wise, in testing that theory. But there is plenty of evidence so far. Women in the Senate and Congress already do things that men just don’t do—or don’t do in the same way. A few years back, Amy Klobuchar described to me the women’s powwow she attends every month at a Washington restaurant: women from both sides of the aisle, partisanship be damned.

9. Women have a better chance of winning the second time around.

“The modeling shows that if a woman runs where she has run before, she’ll do about 5 percent better,” says Celinda Lake, based on her polling. With men, it’s neutral.

10. So what does this all mean for Hillary?

(Because really, what else is important?) The Democrats will tell you this is a win-win, even though the blue side didn’t win this time. That the more women elected into office the better for HRC. Of course, this being politics, not everyone concurs. “I think the midterms was a slap at Hillary Clinton,” says Conway, “because she barnstormed the nation and it wasn’t enough to carry anyone over the finish line. It’s like she came to town and no one cared.”

Of course, in the arc of history, the normalization of women in politics is a positive thing, both for Clintonites and for those who are implacably opposed. “There’ll be less news value and less novelty to her candidacy in near term,” says Juleanna Glover,“ but I'm looking forward to a female candidate being a run-of-the-mill, non-newsworthy phenomenon.”

Stephanie Davidson/Bloomberg
Joni Ernst, Michelle Nunn, Kay Hagan, and Jeanne Shaheen