This story appeared in the March 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
When Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann retired in December after eight years in office, her fans said she left “big shoes to fill.” Bachmann founded and led the House Tea Party Caucus till it fizzled out, and managed to promote all kinds of wacky rightwing ideas with a straight face, including the claim that getting rid of the minimum wage would boost the economy, that AmeriCorps is really a socialist reeducation camp, and that Nobel Prize winners reject the theory of evolution in favor of intelligent design.
In January, three new conservative women took their places in the 114th Congress: Tea Party darling Representative Mia Love of Utah, fighter pilot Martha McSally, who secured Gabby Giffords’ old Congressional seat in Arizona, and Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, tapped by the Republican leadership to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union address. While it is doubtful any of these women can match Bachmann’s sheer nuttiness, they all share her anti-abortion, climate-change denying, rightwing economic vision—and the habit of smiling when they dish it out.
But unlike Bachmann—or Sarah Palin, or other conservative women of that generation—they did not get their start in politics opposing abortion. These Republican women owe their rise to the money men at the top of the party, not the activist, anti -abortion base. Their rise shows how the free market establishment within the party and on its fringes seeks to groom and control a new “diverse” face for the GOP.
The new Republican women in Congress seem to be benefitting from the GOP’s realization that it needs female frontwomen to sell its regressive policies. All three soft-peddled their rhetoric to win seats formerly held by Democrats—something Bachmann never deigned to do—though it is doubtful they moderated their positions.
Let’s start with Utah’s Mia Love, thirty-nine, the housewife turned mayor of tiny Saratoga Springs, Utah, who arguably had the toughest win, even though she ran in a Republican-leaning district. Love, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Haitian immigrants, is a convert to Mormonism who at various times has opposed federal ownership of public land, laws prohibiting child labor, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and abortion rights. Her anti-government statements made her the Tea Party darling in 2012. The right rallied around her again in 2014 even after she began softening her positions, helping her become the first African American Republican woman sent to Washington. But one of Love’s first acts after being elected was to ignore the Tea Party insurgency opposing John Boehner’s reelection as House speaker. She even “questioned” her erstwhile allies’ shutdown of the federal government during the 2013 budget season, according to Utah’s Deseret News, an indication perhaps that the “Tea Party” brand is tarnished. At any rate, she owes a lot to the GOP establishment, including the head of the state party who spent a lot of energy on her campaign. The GOP leadership tapped her to speak at the 2012 Republican convention, which enlarged her visibility in her home state, and she was supported by Project GROW (Growing Republican Opportunities for Women), founded by the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2013 to enlarge the number of GOP women in Congress.
“One of her very first interviews in 2012 to a local radio station was a word salad of confusion. At one point she was talking about defunding libraries to reduce the federal deficit,” recalls Jason Williams, a blogger and radio host based north of Salt Lake City. Then the Republican cavalry rode in. “There was a lot of coaching going on.”
“Her website was full of bumper sticker slogans and cookie cutter Republican talking points,” says Williams. “The 2014 Mia Love looked nothing like the 2012 Mia Love. To say she moderated is an understatement.”
Given Love’s shifting positions, some wonder if she is more opportunist than ideologue. People are examining the tea leaves, since she did not speak at the Utah Eagle Forum’s annual convention, a stop on every Republican politician’s schedule. After much public back-and-forth, Love finally ended up joining the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post headlined its story: “Mia Love Joins a Group She Promised to Dismantle.” She also had people scratching their heads when she said Georgia Representative Steve Scalise should remain House majority whip even though he addressed a white supremacist group in 2002. She told ABC that he “has apologized, and I think we need to move on and get the work of the American people done.”
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa captivated her base by reminiscing about castrating hogs growing up on a farm. She appeared in ads riding a motorcycle in black leather and communicated a corn-fed political charisma. As a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, she presents the can-do image of a liberated woman, combined with the stiff helmet-hair of a conservative one. All this could easily distract you from her reactionary positions, which include calls to impeach Obama, support for a “personhood” amendment asserting that life begins at conception, and arguing for the power of states to nullify federal laws. She also favors dismantling the federal minimum wage and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ernst has a tinge of the old Bachmann brand of conspiracism, too. For instance, she took on the U.N.’s sustainability initiative, Agenda 21, as an active threat to U.S. sovereignty. The Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-choice candidates, directed $477,000 toward her election. Despite these positions, she won the seat of retiring Senator Tom Harkin—long a liberal champion—by 8.5 percentage points, making her the first woman in the Iowa House or Senate delegation ever.
Ernst may have the most credibility with the activist base, but she is also most explicit about crediting the Koch funding network for her political rise. In an audio recording of her talk to a secret Koch donor summit in June 2014, she said it was “the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you that really started my trajectory.”
That shadowy rightwing network helped give her a $12 million lead over her Democratic opponent in the general election.
Even her critics admit Ernst has political talent as well.
In her response to Obama’s State of the Union address, she presented a homey story of growing up in tight financial circumstances on a farm and presented an empathetic understanding of people’s economic difficulties: “The new Republican Congress also understands how difficult these past six years have been. For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about—we felt them every day.”
Patrice Lee of the Koch-funded Independent Women’s Forum was thrilled that Ernst was the face of the GOP at the State of the Union. “It’s a sign that leadership wants to put forward a new image of the party,” she says.
In a tight race, Martha McSally, another Republican veteran, captured the moderate Democratic seat once held by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the Tucson area despite a reputation as a TeaPartier. A retired colonel who spent twenty-six years in the Air Force, she was the first woman to fly in combat. She also stood up against the Department of Defense when it required her to wear a traditional robe off-base while in Saudi Arabia. She refused to “send the message that she believes women are subservient to men.” Interestingly, she opposed Arizona efforts to allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. McSally almost defeated her opponent, Representative Ron Barber, a former aide to Giffords, in 2012. In that race, she was supported by the Susan B. Anthony List PAC and clearly stated she opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. This time, Susan B. Anthony List did not visibly support her—although Koch-backed outlets and the Christian Right Family Research Council did—and McSally did not run on her abortion politics.
“I think it was her military service that really got her elected and makes her likable, because that’s all she talks about,” says Sandra K. Fischer, president of the Arizona Federation of Democratic Women. The Congressional district is close to the Mexican border and is home to a major Air Force base. “Military is a big deal in Tucson.”
“She’s going to be very bad for Arizona,” she adds.
McSally vowed to her district that she would be a moderate even though she refused to condemn the Tea Party shutdown of the government, supports privatizing Social Security and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and protecting a tax system that benefits the wealthy. Giffords regularly crossed the aisle, making her popular in her divided Tucson-area district. But in McSally’s short career in the House she has already shown herself to be to the right of Arizona’s GOP Senator John McCain on immigration. She also opposed the bipartisan proposal to remove sexual assault cases from the hands of officers higher up in the chain of command despite scandals when they overturned convictions. Ernst supports the proposal.
Even though Republican women made a splash this election, they are still severely outnumbered in their caucus. “While Republicans won big across the country, women remain seriously underrepresented among GOP officeholders,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But there are a record number of pro-life women in Congress—21 out of 104 women. So far that hasn’t been enough for the GOP to avoid bad publicity. In January, the House GOP leadership had to pull a bill banning abortion at twenty weeks because seasoned anti-choice Congresswomen said the men ignored them on an exception in the case of rape. Before the election, polls showed women tend to see Republicans as “intolerant, lacking in compassion and stuck in the past.” This was the finding of Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network in their confidential Republican and Women Voters report, obtained by the Beltway publication Politico before the elections. That such rightwing women were able to be elected by divided electorates suggests that they present a “softer” image for reactionary politics.
As a group, the current class of Republican women may be better salespeople for rightwing politics. More than Bachmann, the three rightwing newcomers seem ready to drop inconvenient positions depending on how the winds of opportunity blow. In this, they are perhaps more reminiscent of Sarah Palin, one of their backers. But one thing is certain: Where big money leads, they are sure to follow.
Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist who writes about economic justice and the U.S. right.