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At a Bruegger’s Bagels in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Lena Epstein chats animatedly about embracing pregnancy on the campaign trail. “I’m deeply proud of [that],” says Ms. Epstein, who could become the first woman to represent Michigan’s 11th District. “I’m an example that a woman can be a wife, a mother, and a leader, too.” But then she adds quickly, “I don’t want this to be about gender. I want this to be about my preparations, my qualifications.” It’s an example of the delicate balancing act many Republican women candidates are facing this cycle. In this Year of the Woman 2.0, in which a record 262 women are on the ballot, they’re not riding the same wave of female enthusiasm – much of it sparked by the #MeToo movement and opposition to President Trump – that’s currently energizing the left. While Democratic candidates promote their gender and champion women’s issues, most Republicans downplay it, sticking largely to conservative tropes like taxes and gun rights. “They aren’t going to win any applause for talking about sexual harassment, because their voters don’t care about that issue,” says Melissa Deckman, who teaches politics and public affairs at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.
The woman approaches the table with a tentative smile. “Are you Lena?” she asks.
“I am!” Lena Epstein, candidate for Michigan’s 11th congressional district, beams and gives her a hug.
“I heard you talking about your values and I knew that it had to be you,” the woman tells Ms. Epstein. “Keep it up.”
The exchange is warm, unscripted, personal. It radiates the optimism that has infused the 2018 campaign cycle, especially among women candidates. The latest count by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) shows that a record 262 women won nominations for the US House and Senate. Many, like Epstein, are first-time candidates.
But while Epstein may technically be part of the Year of the Woman 2.0, her candidacy isn’t exactly riding the wave of female enthusiasm that’s sweeping the country. That’s because she’s a Republican.
Epstein is one of 60 GOP women running for Congress – a figure slightly above average compared with previous cycles for Republicans. The massive uptick in Democratic women on the ballot, however, means that they represent roughly one-fifth of all female candidates this year.
At the same time, pollsters are projecting the gender gap among voters may hit a record level this year. Fifty-six percent of women now identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while 37 percent ally with or lean toward the GOP, the Pew Research Center reports. A Quinnipiac poll released in July also showed that among women, Democrats were ahead on the congressional ballot by a 25-point margin.
President Trump is part of the calculus – his history of making off-color remarks about women and boasting about sexual misconduct has alienated many women voters. But the numbers are indicative of broader trends around voting patterns among men and women. As Democrats brand their party as the champion of issues affecting women and minority groups, more women voters and candidates flock to them. This year, white men are the minority among Democratic candidates for the first time, paving the way for a shift in what is still a mostly-white, mostly-male Congress. But as women become more and more monolithic in their vote, it means their political influence will increasingly ebb and flow with the Democratic Party’s fortunes.
“You can’t draw attention to your identity on the Republican side, but among Democrats that’s ... valued, and expected,” says Rosalyn Cooperman, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “Party culture becomes a very important way of understanding some of those differences.”
Many Democrats – including Epstein’s opponent, former Obama administration official Haley Stevens – are embracing, if not emphasizing, issues such as the #MeToo Movement and paid family leave. “I’m proud to represent the values and the policies that women care about that have long been ignored,” Ms. Stevens says, noting that the 11th district has never had a woman represent it in Congress.
Republican women, on the other hand, tend to double down on the party line about rejecting identity politics. It’s yet unclear how GOP women candidates will respond to the sexual assault allegation that has surfaced against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But in general, they tend to stick to conservative concerns like taxes and gun control, working to broaden their support without losing core voters in a party that is becoming increasingly white and male.
For Epstein, that means highlighting her economics degree from Harvard University, her entrepreneurial pedigree as co-owner of Vesco Oil, and her work as Mr. Trump’s campaign co-chair in Michigan in 2016.
“They aren’t going to win any applause for talking about sexual harassment because their voters don’t care about that issue,” says Melissa Deckman, who teaches politics and public affairs at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.
Party attitudes are reflected in the recruiting, campaigning, and funding structures surrounding women candidates. Maggie’s List, the Susan B. Anthony List, and Value In Electing Women (VIEW PAC) – all political action committees meant to help Republican women – have together received about $1.5 million in donations this cycle. By contrast, EMILY’s List, whose goal is to recruit, train, and fund Democratic women who support abortion rights, has collected just under $4 million.
Viral campaign ads this campaign season have shown Democratic candidates switching into heels at a subway station, talking about dealing with “handsy men,” and breastfeeding on camera. The message from Republican women has centered more on how being a woman is incidental to their qualifications – or strengthens their convictions and conservatism. That means more guns and in Epstein’s case, more attention to her business background.
While women candidates from both parties are shown stepping out of fighter jets, Democrats tend to emphasize the barriers they overcame on their way to the cockpit. Republicans – with the rare exception – concentrate on combat experience.
“It’s, ‘My womanness makes me man enough,’ ” says Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and CAWP scholar. “They just deal with gender and the performance of gender differently than their Democratic female counterparts.”
That doesn’t mean Republicans won’t ever talk about gender – or don’t want to see more women elected. At a Bruegger’s Bagels in Bloomfield Hills, a suburb northwest of Detroit, Epstein chats animatedly about her family and her pride at embracing her pregnancy while on the campaign trail. “It was … something that I’m deeply proud of,” she says. “I’m an example that a woman can be a wife, a mother, and a leader, too, in the private sector and seeking public office.”
But then she adds quickly: “I don’t want this to be about gender. I want this to be about my preparations, my qualifications.”
The tactic may work in her race. The 11th district has been a safely Republican seat since at least 1990, and Trump’s victory in Michigan – narrow though it was – gives Epstein reason to align herself with the president, as well as with traditionally conservative principles.
Stevens, her Democratic opponent, seizes every chance to turn the conversation to jobs and manufacturing. And for all that she’s willing to talk about diversity in politics, she holds up moderate Democrats such as Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan as models.
“I’m focused on the Midwest,” says Stevens, who served as chief of staff on the Obama-era task force charged with stabilizing the auto industry in the wake of the Great Recession. “I’m running to be the best advocate for our regional economy, particularly as it relates to … advanced manufacturing and new technologies.”
Still, the 11th district race serves as a window into how differently Republican and Democratic women view the role of gender, and how they present themselves to their voters. Epstein talks frankly about her Jewish faith and celebrates her family’s diverse political views; she grew up in a household of Democrats and independents. But those attributes are clearly less important to her constituents than her conservative credentials.
Picking at a salad, the woman who approached Epstein for a hug says she admires her impressive career – and the fact that she has the president’s approval. “I don’t care what sex [a candidate is], I don’t care what race,” she shrugs. “If she was a guy, I would have approached her … because she believes in individuality, and people taking care of themselves, and respecting themselves, and pulling themselves up.”