Women Flex Their Political Muscle in 2010 Primaries

Carly Fiorina, Nikki Haley, Meg Whitman, and others are making waves this cycle.

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Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "A woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water." Given the results of last week's primaries, in which both women and the Tea Party movement had big wins in heated races, one must wonder whether the former first lady could somehow foresee the politics of 2010.

In what's been dubbed "the year of the outsider," female victors of the week's statewide primary races showed that being a strong woman can be an asset. And on an issue which, experts say, had been a campaign liability for many women in the past—the economy—GOP businesswomen successfully emphasized their financial savvy and fiscal restraint. Perhaps most tellingly, the candidates' gender was not a central issue in their campaigns, which could be a victory in itself for women seeking public office.

"We have come a long way to see very strong, viable candidates who are not using gender as an issue. Reproductive rights or equal pay—you're not hearing about that," says Leslie Sanchez, Republican strategist and author of the 2009 book, You've Come a Long Way, Maybe, about the new role of women in politics. "They're talking about how can we get our financial budgets in order, how can we continue to bring jobs to our states."

In California, for example, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman joined Linda McMahon, who won Connecticut's Republican Senate nomination last month, in the ranks of female former CEOs nominated for statewide elected office. Both Fiorina, a former chief of Hewlett Packard who is challenging incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Whitman, a former eBay chief who is squaring off against state Attorney General Jerry Brown for his old job as governor, led campaigns focused on their budget know-how. (Whitman's campaign budget didn't hurt either, as she spent $80 million, $71 million from her own pocket, to secure the nomination.) [See who is donating to Boxer's campaign.]

In South Carolina's Republican gubernatorial primary, Nikki Haley, a Tea Party favorite, running on a fiscally and socially conservative platform, took 49 percent of the vote while facing allegations of marital infidelity. That left her just short of the majority necessary to win the nomination outright. If the Indian-American state legislator wins the June 22 runoff against Rep. J. Gresham Barrett and goes on to win in November, she would be both the Palmetto State's first female governor and first non-white governor.

And in Nevada, former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate nod as the most conservative of the top contenders. She parlayed her outsider status into major Tea Party support. Angle wants to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education and privatize Social Security, making her the Democratic Party's foe of choice for embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A Rasmussen poll released after the primary put her 11 points ahead of Reid, 50 to 39 percent.

Traditionally, successful female candidates tended to be Democrats who would emphasize women's issues, experts say. But that is changing.

"They led with their ideas not their gender," Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, says of the 2010 field. "The political establishment has been insulting women for decades by presuming that all women in politics are about is abortion, that we can't do the math, we don't understand tax policy." It turns out, she adds, that "we can do the math and girl talk 2010 is all about fiscal issues."

And according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, what all of these Republican races indicate is a changing party base. The party's core, Lake argues, is moving from one that had excluded women to one that encourages them. "The change it represents is the decline of the born-again Christian base and the emergence of the Tea Party base, having as a very prominent leader Sarah Palin," she says. "It's much more pro-women, and it's a place where women's outsider-ism helps." Indeed, says Lake, for a constituency upset with business as usual in Washington, a woman, even a Democratic incumbent, can appear different than what voters see as the male-dominated status quo in the capital.