Jeanne Shaheen has made a career of smashing glass ceilings. Her elections as New Hampshire’s first woman governor and first woman U.S. Senator cleared the way for the state to become the first ever with an all-female congressional delegation. Add Gov. Maggie Hassan and Speaker Terie Norelli and you’ve come a long way, baby.
The ultimate in women’s political equality occurs not when women candidates get elected, but when incumbent women are defeated as easily as men are, when being a woman candidate holds no special political advantage or protection extending beyond the merits, one’s record and positions on issues.
Gender has provided a huge tailwind in Shaheen’s political career, though she avoids making overt appeals to girl power, which turns off voters. “Being a woman was not one of those things I needed to talk about. It’s clear. All I have to do is walk into a room with my opponent and it’s clear I’m a woman,” Shaheen told a reporter after her first election as governor.
She didn’t have to. Shaheen became fully credentialed on women’s issues prior to seeking office: appointed by Gov. Hugh Gallen as vice chair of the state Commission on the Status of Women, co-founder of the Women’s Lobby, and paid consultant for the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The first time Shaheen ran for office, a bid for state rep in 1978, she lost. Since then Shaheen has been on the ballot eight times, running against male opponents every election but one. She defeated men to win her state Senate seat, the governor’s office, and election to the U.S. Senate.
She won those elections by winning a disproportionate share of women’s votes. When Shaheen was elected governor by defeating Ovide Lamontagne by 18 points in 1996, exit polls showed that Shaheen split the male vote but carried women by a landslide two-to-one margin. In 2000, when she squeaked by Gordon Humphrey to win re-election, the last pre-election survey by the University of New Hampshire showed Humphrey carrying men by five points but Shaheen winning women by 17. When she was elected to the Senate in 2008 over John E. Sununu, exit polls showed Shaheen lost men by eight points (45-53) but won women by 23 (60-37) — a staggering 31 point gender advantage. When Sununu defeated her in 2002, that gap was just nine points, according to the last pre-election survey.
Usually the gender gap is discussed as though it is a one-way street. Republican candidates are said to have a problem winning votes from women. One could just as accurately frame the issue the opposite way: Why is it that Shaheen has such a hard time attracting votes from men?
It has been Shaheen’s ability to peel off Republican women that saved her in close races in the past. Some of these voters were political moderates who were uncomfortable with socially conservative Republican nominees. Others were attracted to Shaheen the political pioneer. Either way, the result was a string of conventional male opponents frustrated by the difficulty of having to run against Betty Crocker.
Eventually in politics, though, the novelty and advantage of being “the first” wears off. Even a political trail blazer becomes just another politician. Arkansan Hattie Caraway, who in 1932 became the first woman elected to the Senate, served two terms and then lost a primary to William Fulbright. Margaret Thatcher’s party turned her out when voters regardless of gender thought it was time for a change. Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama.
Among those attracted to a recent Rollinsford luncheon for challenger Scott Brown were two women who are not active in Republican politics. They were both about 50, partners in a small business who had taken time out from their workday to drive half an hour from New Castle to check out Brown. They were precisely the type of voters who have provided Shaheen her margins of victory in past elections. Brown was completely acceptable to them.
The first couple times, Betty Crocker’s cake mix is great. But after a while, it’s just another box on the shelf and you’re ready to try something else.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @FergusCullen.