Female candidates are targeting three key Senate seats in 2018
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- Three congresswomen - Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, and Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen - are strong contenders for Senate seats in 2018.
- Sinema and Rosen, both moderate Democrats, are challenging the most vulnerable incumbents: two Republicans who have been critical of Trump.
- And Blackburn represents the rise of ultra-conservative GOP women running for elected office.
In the months leading up to last November, many predicted that 2016 would be the next "Year of the Woman."
The October 2016 release of the "Access Hollywood" tape, in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women, would be another Anita Hill moment calling attention to gender disparities in politics in much the same way that Hill's sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas did in 1992, a year that saw significant gains for women in public office.
Instead, female candidates came up short in 2016. As they have for the past few decades, they made small, but steady, gains in the Senate in 2016, their numbers risings from 20 to 21, with female senators of color growing from one to four.
And in 2018, three women are in strong positions to pick up Senate seats, two of them in states that have never elected a woman senator.
Courting swing voters in the Sun Belt
Two of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2018 are GOP incumbents: Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
Heller, who has distanced himself from Trump on immigration and healthcare policy, will be challenged by first-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, a computer scientist and synagogue president. And Flake, one of the GOP's most vocal Trump critics, will face Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, an openly gay two-term Democrat with a compelling life story.
Both incumbents will be primaried by more conservative candidates, both of whom are backed by Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has vowed to challenge every incumbent Republican senator in 2018 in an effort to undermine the GOP establishment.
Sinema and Rosen are banking on those primary races to move the senators father to the right and alienate swing voters.
Lucinda Guinn, vice president for campaigns at Emily's List, told Business Insider that as Heller and Flake are forced to stake out more conservative positions, they will "get more and more out of touch with their states, with those they represent, than they already are."
Emily's List, a political action committee that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, was quick to endorse Rosen and Sinema and has already begun campaigning against their opponents, launching a series of attack ads on Heller in August.
The rise of 'hardcore' conservative women
Meanwhile, veteran congresswoman Marsha Blackburn is running as a Trump-supporting, far-right conservative to replace retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a prominent Republican who recently broke with Trump.
In an October campaign ad announcing her Senate bid, Blackburn sold herself as a strong Trump backer - a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative" and "politically incorrect and proud of it."
Syracuse University professor Danielle Thomsen has found that that since the 1980s, Republican women elected to Congress have become more conservative (along with the rest of their party) and their numbers have declined in recent years, while Democratic women have made steady gains both in the House and Senate. Just five of the 52 Republicans in the Senate in 2017 are women. Of the 46 Democrats in the Senate, 16 are women.
Blackburn - along with Kelli Ward, Flake's conservative primary challenger - epitomizes the rightward ideological shift among Republican women elected to Congress over the past several years.
In her 2017 book on partisan polarization in Congress, Thomsen used Blackburn, who has been in Congress since 2oo2, as a benchmarch for ideology, and found that between 1980 and 1992, just 6% of incoming Republican members of Congress were more conservative than Blackburn. But between 2006 and 2010, 42% were as or more conservative than the Tennessee congresswoman.
Among female candidates, Thomsen found that ultra-conservative candidates are 20 times more likely to run for office than moderates are.
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Avoiding identity politics
In her 2016 campaign memoir, "What Happened," former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wrote about how her campaign struggled to find a sweet spot in its messaging around gender and the historic nature of Clinton's candidacy. She wrote that key demographics, including undecided voters in swing states, didn't respond well to Clinton's focus on her gender.
"Many of our core supporters were very excited by the idea of finally breaking the glass ceiling," Clinton wrote. "But some younger women didn't see what the big deal was. And many undecided women in battleground states didn't want to hear about it at all. Some were afraid that by leaning into the fact that I was a woman, my campaign would end up turning away men - a disheartening but all-too-real possibility."
Some predict that all three female Senate candidates will avoid talking explicitly about their gender during their campaigns.
Despite the fact that, if elected, Blackburn would be the first ever female senator from Tennessee, she mentions her gender only in passing in her nearly three-minute campaign ad.
After quoting former President Andrew Jackson - "One man with courage makes a majority" - Blackburn adds, "Courage comes in both genders and I'm running for the US Senate because I'll fight every day to make our Republican majority act like one."
But Blackburn's "100 percent pro-life" position - what she calls "pro-baby and pro-woman" - positions her as an outspoken activist in a highly gendered debate around reproductive rights.
Notably, Blackburn touts her work investigating Planned Parenthood following the release of secretly filmed videos purporting to show healthcare providers discussing the sale of fetal tissue for scientific research.
"I fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts, thank God," she says in the ad.
The claim is manifestly untrue - the investigation never found that Planned Parenthood engaged in the sale of fetal tissue - and it prompted Twitter to block the ad from promotion on the platform, sparking an outcry among conservatives who accused the "liberal elite" and Silicon Valley of censoring their speech.
Because Simena and Rosen will both target Trump supporters and swing voters, their campaigns will likely avoid discussing glass ceilings or "playing the woman card," as Trump famously accused Clinton of doing in 2016.
"They need to gain voters that are sometimes turned off by 'identity politics,'" Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, told Business Insider.
But, Dittmar added, regardless of whether Sinema, for example, discusses her sexuality during the campaign, it will play a role in her race.
Sinema, who would be the first woman senator from Arizona, makes no mention of her gender in the ad announcing her candidacy, which focuses on her life story - she lived in an abandoned gas station for three years as a child - and a positive, uniting message reminiscent of Clinton's "stronger together" tagline.
And while evidence abounds that Democratic and progressive women are more politically engaged than at any time in recent history, they are not the voters who will make the difference in Arizona and Nevada.
"They can't win on the Democratic progressive women who are super engaged and want to see more women in politics," Dittmar said.
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