Despite major losses for women elsewhere in the country, the gender gap is alive and well among California voters. Indeed, the 2010 election was a test case for California candidates who supported women’s issues. This turned out to be far more important than being a woman.
No feminist agenda existed for, nor were any specific women’s issues except abortion identified by, the Republican women candidates running for the governorship and for the U.S. senate in California. Would Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina make a difference in women’s lives if they won those respective seats?
Did the electorate care? November 2nd provided the answer: Their opponents’ proven track records on women’s issues including abortion, combined with the Democratic candidates’ government experience, proved to be Whitman and Fiorina’s downfall.
The political dialogue occurring in these two races reflected hardcore differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Senator Barbara Boxer and Governor-elect Jerry Brown are defined by their years of public service, whereas Whitman and Fiorina offered up their corporate histories and embarrassing confessions that they had frequently not voted.
In addition, the issue of abortion continually fueled campaign debate. Each of the four candidates defined themselves as either pro- or anti-choice. Brown has consistently supported reproductive freedom for women. In this and previous elections he has been endorsed by women’s political organizations. Throughout the campaign, his opponent Whitman also declared herself to be pro-choice. Yet at a press conference in Santa Barbara early in the campaign, Whitman was asked if she had voted for the parental notification initiative that had been on the ballot previously; and if she supported public funding for family planning services.
Her answers, respectively, were yes and no.
Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood of California later issued a voting guide opposing Whitman’s candidacy and supporting Brown for governor. Trying to be all things to all people has been Whitman’s campaign modus operandi. When it came down to the core issues of reproductive freedom, Whitman was pro-choice in name only.
Success in the boardroom did not bring Whitman large support among women. Early in the campaign, she created a woman’s coalition that was designed to establish a network of women to support her throughout the state. Despite these efforts, the gender gap became increasingly larger in support of Brown and against Whitman.
During the week before the election, Meg found herself on the down side at the Shriver’s Women’s Conference. Unwilling to agree to Today Show host Matt Lauer’s request to run a positive campaign, and despite her arguments for the right to challenge Brown’s longtime public record, she was booed by the 14,000 women in the audience. Not a good omen.
As the election wound down, Meg’s “unfavorables” in the polls rose. The nanny disaster and flip-flopping on issues caused voter distrust of Whitman. Voters were able to sniff out her political two-facedness.
Whitman’s loss to Brown reveals that business experience and unlimited resources, including the best campaign team that money can buy and huge media exposure, does not win a campaign in the blue state of California. A positive “featured TV ad” introducing Meg finally ran at the end of the campaign instead of the beginning. Team Whitman failed to introduce their candidate, much less connect her to voters.
The US Senate race played out in a very different scenario. Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina were two women with distinctly different political personalities. From the beginning, Boxer fought a tough campaign, never laying low like Jerry Brown did throughout the summer. Working hard and raising money, she was constantly visible throughout the state. Although Fiorina is a millionaire she didn’t have the very deep pockets that Whitman had. Boxer held her own raising money in her race.
In the early stages, Fiorina put Boxer on the defensive, challenging her for a lack of accomplishments during her three terms in the Senate. In response, Boxer focused on the economy and jobs, supporting the efforts of the Obama administration and advertising her years of legislative success.
But as the campaign moved into the fall, the issue of abortion became central to Boxer’s dialogue.
There was no lack of clarity between the two candidates on abortion, no Whitman-like fudging by Fiorina. Boxer has been a longtime advocate for women and reproductive freedom, and understood this as an advantage. Fiorina clearly articulated her opposition to abortion except in cases of rape or incest.
With the candidates running a close race and the Chamber of Commerce pouring millions of dollars into the election to help Fiorina, the pro-choice women’s political community jumped in to support Boxer. Organizations like Emily’s List, The Feminist Majority, NOW, National Women’s Political Caucus, and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California all issued statements of support, raised money, or put teams on the ground and in the field.
Press conferences were held around the state opposing Fiorina (and Whitman) and efforts were made to reach pro-choice students to support Boxer and organize volunteers for her campaign.
Whitman failed to pass the sniff test, and Jerry Brown won the election by 12 percentage points. As for Fiorina, not even an endorsement by Sarah Palin could help her. Boxer beat Fiorina by nine points.
In 1992, in what became known as the Year of the Woman, Barbara Boxer and five other women were elected to the US Senate. Until the 2010 election, women held only 17 percent of the seats in Congress. Since then, the numbers of women in Congress have not greatly increased and when all votes are tallied, this election may result in a reduction of the number of women in state and federal offices.
But the feminist agenda was definitely central to the California election. Election day exit polls conducted by Edison Research as part of the National Voter Pool Survey, and reported in the November 4 edition of the Los Angeles Times, revealed that women voters supported Brown and Boxer over their opponents by 16 points each.
Susan Rose served two terms on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. Among other things, she is a founding member of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, and previously served as executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women.