How can female Democratic pols advertise themselves in the age of Palin?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 26 2010 10:47 AM

Bear Market

How can female Democratic pols advertise themselves in the age of Palin?

Sarah doesn't speak for me. Click image to expand.
Mama Grizzlies from Emily's List

Even before Palin's five-for-five sweep Tuesday, there were signs that Democrats were worried that the Mama Grizzly narrative might be the only one resonating with voters: Last week, the pro-choice activist group Emily's List released a cringeworthy video featuring women— wearing "bear suits"— explaining humorlessly that the "real" Mama Grizzlies are the liberal mothers who want to protect their children's present and future. The video fell a galaxy or two short of subversively clever. But it made clear that these days, everything is reflected through a Palin-prism. So how should Democratic female pols market themselves in the Mama Grizzly era?

Just a bit more than two years ago, Hillary Clinton released her infamous 3 a.m. ad. There were kids and a mother in it, sure, and Hillary was watching over them—but not in a very maternal, comforting way. The world was a scary place, and she was woman-of-steel enough to deal with it. A few months later, Palin surrounded herself with her kids at the Republican National Convention in a very natural way and then released her Mama Grizzly video defining a new era where maternal instincts became an asset in politics. Democratic women had spent decades neutering their public image in pantsuits, asking that the conversation be directed to the issues, not whether they had one child or six. And they were pretty sure they owned—lock, stock, and barrel—the issues of most interest to women. Now they had to adjust.

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So far, their attempts have been somewhat scattered. Jari Askins, an Oklahoman Democrat who's been something of a feminist trailblazer and isn't afraid to say so, is locked in a tight gubernatorial battle with Mary Fallin, Palin endorsee and mother of a huge brood. Askins happens to be childless and unmarried, but that hasn't stopped her from titling an ad "Your Family—and Mine," in which she explains that certain traits often ascribed to women in business and politics—a willingness to listen to either side, a mediating presence—will make her a success. It's a similar tack to the one taken by Democrat Alex Sink, "a wife and a working mom," in her Florida gubernatorial bid. * In one ad, two petty men argue in the background vigorously, while she, balanced, salmon-clad, tells us calmly that she'll actually get things done. In another spot, she delivers a mom-lecture, scolding the state of Florida for its partisan squabbling.

In other quarters, Democrats have explicitly connected toughness with manliness—"Tell Rick Perry to stop cowering and face Texas like a man," mocks an ad taken out by a liberal PAC. Perry will face Democrat Bill White in November, after easily trouncing Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the primary despite apparently not bringing the right gonads to the gunfight. The implication, of course, casts the fairer sex as the weaker sex—something that would have been anathema to Democrats in the Hillary age.

Republican women who don't automatically fit the "Mama Grizzly" billing by virtue of their personal history are also under pressure to conform. Brenna Findley, an unmarried, Palin-endorsed Iowa AG candidate, noted on her official bio that "she spends her free time trying new recipes, reading and quilting." Karen Handel, a Palin-endorsed Georgia Republican who lost her gubernatorial primary, might not have kids, but her official bio doesn't neglect her nurturing side: She and her husband care for their two cavalier spaniels, Maggie and Mia. And in a campaign video, she explained that only one of the four candidates wears lipstick (that we know of, Karen!), and coincidentally, only one of the four really cares for you.

Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico, married with one stepchild, has embraced the Mama Grizzly label—her latest ad, for instance, shows her in a pink button-down (she wears a matching blue one elsewhere in campaign materials—two-for-one special, that mom-version of fiscal conservatism?) walking through a classroom, smiling warmly at children while espousing draconian testing measures for those adorable flawed products of the "culture of failure." In another, she reveals that in her office she keeps a photo of a baby whose abusers she prosecuted—an odd combo of maternal and avenging. Her opponent, successful businesswoman Diane Denish, isn't going down without a grizzly fight: Her short bio uses a form of the word family eight times and a form of child six times. In her video "What Really Matters," we soon find that it's … fighting for your family. Guess the theme of her spot "Familia."

Even men are falling under the spell. There was a Ben Quayle ad that showed him hanging out with a couple of cute kids, resplendent in his dadliness, although he has no children (plus a habit of blogging under a porn-star inspired name about his hunt for a hottie). No matter. His strategy seems to have worked, as he won the primary with 22 percent of the vote. Sean Duffy, who appeared on The Real World: Boston in his 20s, now lumberjack, father of six, and a Palin endorsee, is often referred to as a Papa Grizzly.