Douglas Cohn: Primary victors show women have come a long way

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WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s primary elections sent a new message about women candidates and how they see their gender playing on the campaign trail. Over the last couple of decades their gender has moved from being a disadvantage to being neutral to quite possibly being an advantage in today’s political environment.

Democrats Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, and Republican Monica Wehby in Oregon, are running as mainstream candidates capable of independent thought and action, carving out a place in the political firmament that is their own, apart from their party.

Grimes was most adamant about her independence in her victory speech declaring she is “not an empty dress ... not a rubber stamp ... not a cheerleader.” Declaring herself “a strong Kentucky woman” who will make decisions based on what’s best for Kentucky, “not partisan interests.” Then the coup de grace, “I won’t answer to the president, no matter who he or she might be.”

That invited cries of “Hillary, Hillary,” from supporters, a reminder of what lies ahead should Hillary Clinton decide to run. A lot has changed in the six years since Clinton waged her primary fight against Barack Obama, ceding the historical nature of the first woman seriously contending for the presidency to the more compelling prospect of the first black president.

When Clinton ended her bid and thanked “my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” it was her wardrobe of choice, and it was a metaphor for a woman’s admittance into the mostly male club of Washington politics. Pantsuits also make it a whole lot easier to maneuver in and out of planes, and to cover the ground necessary for a national campaign.

But it’s not the required uniform. Women running today are in dresses and high heels if that’s what pleases them. Wehby in Oregon might show up in scrubs. She’s a pediatric neurosurgeon, a calling in and of itself. Just contemplating the image that she is able to project underscores the realization that what seems normal and natural today was anything but a decade ago when women still seemed more of an exception on the campaign trail, fighting for an equal playing field against the guys.

The three women Senate candidates in key races that emerged Tuesday night are all playing the gender card in the sense that they are putting their gender front and center. With women a majority of the electorate, being a woman contending for the Senate is a positive attribute in this age of gridlock when voters are looking for someone who can bridge the gaps in Washington.

The 20 women currently in the Senate (16 Democrats; 4 Republicans) get together regularly for dinner and have formed alliances across party lines when they have common interests. Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the Senate, acts as den mother for the group. When she was elected in 1986, she was the first Democratic woman to win a seat in the Senate on her own, without having to succeed a deceased spouse.

In the quarter-century since, with women coming into their own, a generation of female legacy candidates is stepping up to run for office. Kentucky’s Grimes comes from a political family in the state, and she has served as secretary of state, running and winning statewide. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn is the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, a pro-defense Democrat whose tenure in Washington is fondly remembered by voters.

Grimes and Nunn are running in red states where the odds are against their winning in November. The Grimes versus Mitch McConnell race in Kentucky is expected to cost $100 million and is being billed as this year’s marquee race. Nunn will face whichever Republican wins a runoff nine weeks from now. The independence shown by her father when he was in office, now embodied in her approach to politics, is emblematic of this generation of women. Like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, she did everything he did, except in high heels and backwards.

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