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Year of the Conservative Woman? As Republicans Tout Field of Women Candidates, a Debate with Betsy Reed of The Nation and Former GOP Candidate Princella Smith

StorySeptember 30, 2010
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Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon — is 2010 the year of the conservative woman? With the midterm elections less than five weeks away, we host a debate between Princella Smith, who recently attempted to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, and Betsy Reed, executive editor of The Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congress has adjourned earlier than expected, as lawmakers voted [late] Wednesday night to end the current legislative session, leaving them free to return to their districts and focus on the November 2nd midterm elections.

The Republican Party is expected to gain seats in both the House and the Senate, and many say control of Congress is up for grabs. This year, the GOP is hailing what it calls “The Year of the Woman,” a label used by pundits and party operatives in the wake of some primaries last June that brought victory to candidates like Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Sharron Angle and Nikki Haley.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Sarah Palin, has coined them by another term, “mama grizzlies,” a phrase that’s caught on in the mainstream media, so much so that this week’s Newsweek cover is called “The Bear Truth: Will the 'Mama Grizzlies' Really Protect America’s Kids.” The cover shows a picture of Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Congress member Michele Bachmann and Nikki Haley all dressed in red suits.

Well, The Nation magazine has its own cover story coming out this week about the rise of conservative women in the Republican Party. Betsy Reed is the executive editor of The Nation Her article is called “Sex and the GOP: Why Women Aren’t Buying What the Party Is Selling.” She joins us here in New York.

And we’re joined from Washington, DC, by Princella Smith, former spokesperson for American Solutions, an organization founded by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Earlier this year, she attempted to become the first black female Republican in Congress but lost the Republican primary in Arkansas’s First District.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Betsy Reed, you edited the book Going Rouge: Sarah Palin — An American Nightmare. It was a play on her own book Going Rogue. And your book did very well. I don’t know if people were confused about it; it looked almost exactly like the other book. But let’s start with Sarah Palin and her effect this year in 2010.

BETSY REED: Well, I think Sarah Palin has had a sort of distorting effect, because people saw her and her emergence as a symbol of, you know, suddenly the Republican Party becoming really female-friendly. But in reality, actually, if you look at who likes Sarah Palin, it’s mostly men. If you look at — there are new polls out that present respondents with a hypothetical matchup between Palin and Obama, and women prefer Obama by a margin of thirteen points, whereas men prefer Palin. So, this whole idea that Palin is leading this charge of “mama grizzlies,” making the Republican Party friendly to women, women actually are not buying that line. And it’s much more of a marketing strategy on the part of the Republican Party than anything else, as far as I can see, which is not to say that there isn’t a movement of conservative women. There always has been. It’s just that it’s not poised to take over the country in the way the marketing would lead us to believe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why is that? Why this gender gap, in terms of Palin?

BETSY REED: Well, I mean, I think, you know, women are not stupid. They can look — they can see the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and what those two parties offer in terms of the policies. Women are more dependent on Social Security in old age to protect them from poverty. They have an investment in government protection of, you know, the right to take time off from a job to care for a baby. All of those things, women see the Democrats standing up for, and they are suspicious of these ultraconservative female candidates who make their careers out of demonizing government, because, you know, women know that the government is actually — it plays an important role in their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the media’s coverage overall? How do you think the media has covered the various races — tea party races, I mean, for example, Sharron Angle and others. We’ll talk more about that specifically in a minute.

BETSY REED: Right. I mean, I think the media is always looking for the game change story, you know, so — and these conservative women present a kind of counterintuitive symbol, right? They are presented by the Republican Party as showing that the party is actually not what you would think. It’s not this sort of old white guy thing. It really is this, you know — and I think the media, because that — it was sort of new, the media sort of ran with it uncritically. And, you know, I mean, Sarah Palin, you’ve got to give her some credit. She’s very mediagenic. She’s very good at coining these phrases — “mama grizzlies,” “death panels.” She has a sort of real knack for that. But we’re so unable to kind of think critically about what these women actually represent, in terms of their ideology, and also in terms of their following, which is really not nearly as large as you would think, you know, watching the mainstream news.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, obviously California has become a big battleground for the surge of Republican women. We have both Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman running there. Could you talk about the situation there in California?

BETSY REED: Yeah, I think California is fascinating, because Meg Whitman is actually different from all of these other candidates. She is — I mean, she’s very pro-corporate. That’s her thing. She is not — you know, she’s no liberal, but she’s a moderate. She really is. I mean, she’s pro-choice. Her policies — and she actually has developed a whole campaign called “MEGa Women” to appeal to women. And she, unlike any of these other really right-wing candidates, has actually managed to close the gender gap in that race. Women are equally divided between the two candidates. So she has emerged as a sort of heroine for the moderate women in the Republican Party, who right now — I mean, they’re the sort of untold story. For my story, I interviewed Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, and she had some really interesting, sharp things to say about these “mama grizzlies” and how moderate women and independent women, who may not have a strong partisan identification, don’t have any kind of political representation right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry to say we seem to have lost Princella Smith on the phone. We’re trying to get her back on. We will let people know if we’re able to get her back on. But I wanted to go back to the latest controversy now with Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor, now facing allegations in the last twenty-four hours that she knew, knowingly — that she knowingly hired an undocumented worker from Mexico as her housekeeper and that she ignored warnings from the government that her employee might have questionable legal status. Now, Whitman says she was not aware that her housekeeper was undocumented until the woman volunteered the information in 2009, after which Whitman fired her. The former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, made the allegations in a tearful news conference yesterday.

    NICKY DIAZ SANTILLAN When I met with Meg Whitman on June 20, 2009, I asked her for her assistance, and I explained to her why I came here to the United States. I told her that she knew that, and I don’t have papers to work here, and I need her help. I want her to help me get an immigration attorney. Ms. Whitman just laughed and turned her face to one side.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Betsy Reed, to what has happened in this last twenty-four hours?

BETSY REED: Well, I mean, you know, I think Meg Whitman, what she did during the primary was she tacked far right on immigration. And that worked for her. The Republican primary electorate is extremely conservative, reactionary on the issue of immigration. Now she’s facing, you know, a general election electorate that has a significant number of Latinos. And that gap, if you look at the electoral map, is enormous. That’s how she’s going to lose this race. And this story for Meg Whitman couldn’t be coming at a worse time, because it’s only going to cause that to, you know, widen, because she really comes across as being inhumane, I think. And it’s — you know, the story of this woman is very — is going to be very moving to people. And I think that the point of view of Latinos is, as was clear in the '90s after the backlash against Prop 187, booted Republicans out of office for a decade, right? So, you know, it's something that she’s really going to have to contend with.

AMY GOODMAN: We do seem to have gotten Princella Smith on the phone, the former spokesperson for American Solutions, the organization founded by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Princella Smith, thanks for joining us. I understand the weather is not too good in Washington, DC, right now.

PRINCELLA SMITH: Yes, we’re having quite an adventure here.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this the year of the conservative woman? You attempted to become the first African American Republican woman in Congress, but you lost the Republican primary in Arkansas. What about this year, 2010?

PRINCELLA SMITH: I think it’s a fantastic year for conservatives, and particularly on this conversation about women. We’ve done an incredible job. I did lose my bid, and, you know, that’s — it’s kind of an easy line to say that I lost. But we actually have another conservative woman that won her bid in the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas. Her name is Beth Anne Rankin. And she’s putting up quite a fight against the incumbent Mike Ross. You have people like Jaime Herrera in Washington, in the state of Washington, is running for Congress, Martha Roby. Both of those ladies are women under the age of forty, and they’re doing incredible jobs representing the conservative stance and conservative values.

I think it’s interesting that the media has caught on so quickly to Sarah Palin’s term of the “mama grizzly.” And while that, I guess, is catchy, I think the majority of these women just refer to themselves as “concerned citizens,” much like the rest of America, who want to see the country be a better place. And they’re fighting to do so.

We have a diverse array of people running. I’ll refer back to my race, since it was brought up. I’m twenty-six years old. Not only was I vying to become the first, you know, female African American elected to Congress in the Republican Party, I actually would have been the youngest member of Congress. And that actually attracted more attention, I think, more so than the African American or even female aspect of it. And so, you have a wide range of people that are running.

I think largely what’s going on in this environment is very anti-incumbency. And I’ve actually seen that on the Democrat and Republican sides. And what has happened is a lot of women who are mothers, wives, sisters, CEOs, co-workers, they all are experiencing, you know, what the rest of America is experiencing. And with an unemployment rate as disastrous as this one, women have decided to step up. And it’s not the first time in history that we’ve done so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Princella Smith, you mentioned Sarah Palin, and our guest Betsy Reed was talking about her earlier. We don’t know if you caught that, but she was raising the issue that Sarah Palin actually has much more support among men than she does among women and that there’s a significant gender gap with some of these conservative women from the general population. Could you address that?

PRINCELLA SMITH: Yeah, sure. I mean, and I did hear some of her commentary before my phone went out. You know, again, I must to say this, I know particularly within the Republican Party — I think more even in the Democratic Party —- these female candidates don’t necessary like to be encompassed in a box of “I’m a female candidate, so I’m only talking to female voters and the female electorate.” I mean, again, when you’re running for a position like governor or a US representative, you know, what I ran for, you’re running to represent all of your constituents, whether they vote or not, whether they vote Republican or not, whether they vote Democrat or not. So, you know, I know people like to bring it up that, you know, Sarah Palin has a lot of support from men and less from women. I’m not sure where those statistics come from. But I can tell you that the majority of items that Sarah Palin is advocating for, the majority of Americans agree upon. It’s just, in her situation, she has become so polarized, unfortunately, that largely anything that she says is going to be painted as far right, far right, far right. But if you listen to what she’s actually advocating, she’s pulled in both men and women. And I think that is a testament to the strength of Sarah Palin, that, as a woman, she can pull in both men and women. Again, what real feminist women are fighting for -— and I don’t mean feminist in the far left sense, I mean feminist in its original term — what real feminists are fighting for is for women to have just as many chances as men do, just the opportunities that men do to do, you know, everything, and that includes running for office and representing everyday Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get Betsy Reed’s response.

BETSY REED: Well, you know, I mean, I would say that, in terms of, you know, what — how these new conservative women are emerging in politics, I do think that actually the tea party has provided an opening for women who had been working at the grassroots and who really desired an entrée to more formal electoral politics, like Christine O’Donnell. And, you know, I think that what’s really interesting is that the Republican Party itself has actually been quite systematically hostile to women, not only in its policies, but in the way it cultivates candidates. Its list of “Young Guns,” which is the way it sort of doles out support for, you know, emerging candidates, was at one point 110 people on that list, and there were only seven women. And so, I think, you know, it is interesting that these women have risen up from the grassroots and really barreled into the party. Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle — these people were not welcomed by the party establishment.

But, you know, it’s a very different thing to then say that the Republican Party or the tea party itself is something that is a feminist movement, because there is nothing about it that’s feminist. I mean, it doesn’t actually support any of the policies that would improve women’s lives —-


BETSY REED: —- the lives of most women. Like better childcare subsidies.

PRINCELLA SMITH: If I can respond to that…

BETSY REED: Like, you know, greater access to abortion services and reproductive health and comprehensive sex education. Things like that. And so, I think it’s really important to, like, take back —- for us, on the progressive side, to take back the meaning of feminism, which is not just about, you know, having women participate. It’s more than that. It’s a social justice movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Princella Smith, we just have about twenty seconds for you to respond.

PRINCELLA SMITH: Yeah, there were so many inaccuracies -—

AMY GOODMAN: But we’ll have this debate another day when you can both be in studio.

PRINCELLA SMITH: So many inaccuracies to that. But I will say this. I was not comparing the tea party to a feminist movement. I was asked about women in politics and Republican women in politics. Republican women have held very high positions of esteem in the Republican Party. I’m not going to respond to the fact that they’ve been hostile to women.

I will respond to the “Young Guns” comment. Young Guns is based on fundraising and certain criteria that you need to reach to be able to be in that program. Several women have reached it. I think you’re going to see several women across the country in the Republican Party elected this year. And again, I will revert back to real feminism, which is we want to be put on the same playing field as women — I mean, excuse me, as men. And Republican women are doing that this year.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Princella Smith. Thanks for joining us. She ran for — in the Republican primary in Arkansas. Thanks so much to Betsy Reed of The Nation magazine.

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