Conservative women enthusiastic about Bachmann, Palin


Sarah Palin, right, waves to the crowd as she appears at a campaign rally for Rep. Michele Bachmann on April 7 in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

They don’t like identity politics and aren’t crazy about the word “feminist.” But a lot of conservative women here can’t help but rejoice that they may have a couple of tough-talking, tea-drinking mothers to choose from in the Republican primary.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is on the verge of announcing her intentions, and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is contemplating a bid. If either runs, it would be the first time since Elizabeth Dole’s bid in 1999 that a viable female candidate has sought the Republican nomination for president.

The prospect has energized conservative women who four years ago were deeply uncomfortable with Hillary Rodham Clinton but who see in Bachmann and Palin the kind of family-focused, overtly spiritual candidate whose lifestyle and values seem to mirror their own.

“Who runs the households of America? Women do. Why not the country?” Andrea Ouimette, 64, said at a recent GOP picnic that featured Bachmann as the keynote speaker.

The inclusion of Palin and Bachmann in the mix of candidates caps a blockbuster year in which women were credited with helping the GOP retake control of the House. Women occupy many of the leadership roles in the tea party movement, which reshaped the 2010 midterm elections. Nine GOP women joined the House last year, one joined the Senate, and three won governorships in November.

Bachmann is not considered a front-runner for the nomination. But she has amassed a significant war chest — about $3 million as of March 31 — that virtually assures she will have staying power leading up to the primaries next spring.

Much of the money comes from individual donors, a sign that she has significant grass-roots support, and her Christian credentials make her a contender in the Iowa caucuses.

Palin, though, would no doubt take over the spotlight if she decided to jump into the race. She became a model for a new kind of conservative female leader when she stormed onto the national stage in 2008, with her unapologetic attitude and an infant on her hip. She galvanized a wave of conservative female activists who leapt to her defense when she was ridiculed by comedians and some in the political establishment.

“A lot of us felt like we were getting attacked along with her,” said Teri Christoph, a co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, an online network of about 40,000 conservative women. The group will conduct what its members believe is the first large-scale presidential straw poll of conservative female voters, at its convention in St. Louis next month.

At a recent Bachmann event in New Hampshire, Jan Biller, a nutritional consultant who is debating between supporting Bachmann or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said a woman could be uniquely qualified for the White House.

“I think women are more in touch with the simple things that people want: enough food, a safe environment for their kids, a good education,” Biller said. “I see all of these things crumbling.”

The rise in political activity among conservative women “is not a radical women’s movement, all out of balance like it was” in the 1960s and ’70s, Biller continued.

“It’s like the quiet women who never said anything coming out of the woodwork,” she said.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that Republicans have warmed to the idea of a female president since 2007, when Clinton was vying for the Democratic nomination. That year, more than 20 percent of GOP men and women said they would be less likely to support a candidate who was a woman. In May of this year, 5 percent of men and 12 percent of women gave that response.

Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster, said conservatives generally do not like identity politics and tend to say they are not considering a candidate’s sex or race in their decision. Republican women historically have not shown a greater propensity to vote for women than men, Conway said. But voters increasingly are looking for candidates to whom they can personally relate, and Palin and Bachmann fit the bill for an energized base of Republican women, she said.

“While other male politicians were building their careers, these women were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Conway said. “The populist appeal is right for these times, when people identify with a much more mainstream, non-Ivy League-educated, entrepreneurial, mother-of-five candidate.”

She added that voters no longer view female candidates only through the lens of women’s issues such as abortion, health care and Social Security. And recent gains by female GOP candidates have come at a moment when war and the economy have dominated discussions.

Palin and Bachmann share some key characteristics, including their popularity in tea party circles, their overtly Christian rhetoric and their sharp tongues. They also share a groomed attractiveness that Republican voters like, according to Conway, because it suggests that the candidates are proud of their femininity.

“They look like the homecoming queens, but they talk like Ronald Reagan. Who wouldn’t want that combination?” Conway said.

Bachmann has said repeatedly that Palin is a friend and that she does not view the former Alaska governor as a direct electoral threat. The two appeared at a Minneapolis rally last year that was attended mostly by women, bounding up to the stage to the backdrop of Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls,” according to media reports.

Bachmann has said her priority as president would be to repeal the health-care overhaul law, and she did not promote herself as a “woman candidate” during her Memorial Day New Hampshire trip. But she is often introduced at public appearances as the first GOP woman to represent Minnesota in the House, and she highlights her role as a biological mother of five and a foster mother of 23.

In her public appearances on Memorial Day, Bachmann, wearing a black sundress and cropped yellow sweater, was greeted emotionally by women.

“I’m honored to meet you. I’m a mom of seven myself,” one woman told her.

“Thanks for being tough but being feminine and gracious as you do it,” said another.

After Bachmann’s remarks at the GOP picnic here, Ouimette embraced the representative and, their faces just inches apart, told her, “You’re an awesome woman.” When they separated, Ouimette continued to hold the congresswoman’s hand as they spoke. Finally, Bachmann headed for the door.

“Bye, girls!” Bachmann said, giving Ouimette’s arm one last squeeze. “Love ya! See you later!”

Polling analyst Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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