Hopes of Breaking up the Political Boys Club in Iowa

May 30, 2014

Appel Women for Change make phone calls on May 21, 2014.
Credit Clay Masters / IPR

Iowa will hold its primary on Tuesday, June 3. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin is retiring and that’s set off a domino effect of politicians vying for higher office and this midterm election could make history if voters send a woman to Washington. It’s just one of two states that have never done so or elected a woman as governor; the other is Mississippi.

There’s no simple answer to this mystery. But, there are some hints… the state is down to just four congressional districts. It really likes incumbents. After all, Senator Harkin will have served three decades and he’s Iowa’s junior senator and then there’s academic research showing family responsibilities can hold women back from seeking office. Former Iowa Republican state senator Maggie Tinsman rejects that.

“In Iowa you’re going to live to be 100. 20 years you have children. I’ve raised three children. What are you doing the other 80 years?” Tinsman asked. “You can still have a career. How about some public service?”

Tinsman ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Years later she co-founded a nonpartisan group working to get more women to run for the statehouse. It’s seen frequently as a stepping stone to Washington. Two women in two different races have the best shot at making it to November. One is Republican State Senator Joni Ernst who’s running for Harkin’s U.S. Senate seat.

“I’m campaigning because I’m the right candidate at the right time. I’m not using my gender as a crux,” Ernst said.

Ernst is leading the primary polls. She’s campaigning as a mom, but other than that she doesn’t overtly bring up gender. Her latest ad has Ernst talking about her childhood when she walked the beans on her family farm and talked about her church. It’s a significant departure from her previous commercials; one showed her driving a motorcycle and firing a handgun. Her debut ad went viral.

“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst said with a smile in the commercial. Too far? Iowa voter Sally Frotscher thought so.  

“If that was a male’s commercial… that he could castrate hogs and shoot at a target accurately – that doesn’t impress me,” Frotscher said. “That’s not the way to get my vote.”

Now in the other race for the U.S. House, former Democratic state senator Staci Appel is running unopposed in the 3rd Congressional District. On a recent Wednesday night she made calls alongside about a dozen other women including Frotscher.

Appel embraces her gender; campaigning heavily on education and talking about her six children. She has the backing of Emily’s List. Sally Frotscher said it’s important to bring up Appel’s gender while making calls. 

“I think as a middle aged woman who year after year, election after election, sees the female candidate beaten down because she is a woman,” Frotscher said. “I think we do need to promote that she is a strong woman, well-educated and has a message that works for men and for women.”

Dianne Bystrom isn’t surprised that these female politicians of different parties are campaigning differently. She heads the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University and has spent years analyzing female candidates across the country. Her research shows Republican women often need to pick up male voters while Democratic women have a little more leeway to stress their gender.

“Women, when they run in open seat races, when they get to the general stage, for congress they win 52 percent of the races so they have a slight edge,” Bystrom said. “So if we can one woman candidate to an open seat general election I think we have a good chance.”

The best chance Iowa women have ever had to break up the political boys club.

Three women are running for Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, which is open because current Democratic congressman Bruce Braley is running for Harkin’s seat.  The women are former lawmaker Swati Dandekar, Cedar Rapids City Coucnilwoman Monica Vernon and state Representative Anesa Kajtazovic. Republican Marianette Miller-Meeks will make a third run for the 2nd Congressional District against Democratic incumbent David Loebsack.