These Republican women are primed to make history in Tennessee, but don't expect them to bring up 'gender issues'

  • In the traditionally GOP-leaning Tennessee, which holds primary elections Thursday, Republican women might be on the verge of making history.
  • In one race, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn is running to fill Sen. Bob Corker's seat. In the other key race, Blackburn's congressional colleague Rep. Diane Black is running for governor in a tight GOP primary contest.
  • While an eventual win by either Blackburn or Black would break barriers, neither woman has made gender issues a key part of their campaigns. They might not need to, experts say.
President Donald Trump looks on Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is running for U.S. Senate, speaks during a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, May 29, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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President Donald Trump looks on Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is running for U.S. Senate, speaks during a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, May 29, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Women are running for office in record numbers this year. Democrats are fueling that trend nationwide, particularly as several prominent Republican women leave office.

But in the traditionally GOP-leaning Tennessee, which holds primary elections Thursday, Republican women are on the verge of making history.

Tennessee's two marquee races this year — for U.S. senator and governor — feature GOP women who have a good shot to win this fall in a state that has never had a woman serve in the Senate or in the governor's office.

In one race, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn is running to fill GOP Sen. Bob Corker's seat, since he opted not to pursue re-election. In the other key race, Blackburn's congressional colleague Rep. Diane Black is running for governor in a tight GOP primary contest.

While an eventual win by either Blackburn or Black would break barriers, neither woman has made gender a key part of their campaigns. In conservative Tennessee, some experts argue, they might not need to. Here, female GOP candidates tout their support for President Donald Trump, and not necessarily their experience as women in a male-dominated political arena.

"These two women don't talk about gender because that's who they are. They are tied to conservative politics," Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, said of Blackburn and Black. "They're not strategically sitting at home and saying, 'Let's not talk about gender.' These women have been explicit in that they don't root politics in their gender."

Blackburn and 'the gender issue'

When Blackburn first announced her run for Senate, she called herself a "hard-core, card-carrying Tennessee conservative."

"I'm politically incorrect and proud of it," she said in her campaign video.

Blackburn, who grew up in Mississippi, broke into politics when she moved to Tennessee. In 2002, she became the first Tennessee woman elected to Congress who hadn't followed her husband in the position. But Blackburn didn't want to dwell on that historic achievement.

"I don't campaign on the gender issue," she said in an interview, adding that she is the most qualified candidate.

Yet, when she jumped into the race to fill Corker's seat, her campaign accused critics of misogyny — particularly when there was an effort to push Corker back into the race.

"Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can't win a general election is just a plain sexist pig," Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for Blackburn's Senate campaign, told CNBC in February. "She's the best fundraiser in the country and is beating Phil Bredesen in several polls. We aren't worried about these ego-driven, tired old men."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

When it comes to policy, however, Blackburn emphasizes her dedication to the conservative agenda. Trump won the state by 26 points in 2016, and Blackburn's positions line up well with the president's. She takes a hard line on immigration, pushes for gun-ownership rights and wants to dismantle Obamacare.

Corker, who has called the White House "an adult day care center" and suggested that the president was setting the nation on course to World War III, has said he would donate to Blackburn. And while he has said he will not campaign against her Democratic opponent, he has publicly praised him.

Blackburn's loyalty to Trump puts her at odds with many female voters unhappy with Trump. Female aversion to Trump, particularly in the suburbs and key House districts, is seen as a key factor for control of Congress nationwide. In Tennessee, a Vanderbilt University poll in May showed that only 48 percent of female voters in the state approved of Trump, versus approval of 59 percent of male voters.

The poll revealed an even bigger warning sign for Blackburn: 46 percent of women viewed her favorably, while 72 percent of women approved of her likely Democratic rival this fall, former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

But some politics experts think neither Blackburn nor gubernatorial candidate Black have to depend on the female vote to win.

"Gender is something they don't talk about," said Vanderbilt political science professor Josh Clinton. "They have higher approval ratings among men than women, and their gender certainly is not driving female voters to support them."

Two women called 'congressman'

Blackburn has said she prefers to go by congressman instead of congresswoman because she thinks it's more gender neutral. She has stated that the term congresswoman is "grammatically incorrect," as it is not a gender-specific job. Black also goes by congressman.

The gubernatorial candidate is more apt than her fellow representative to express pride in her status as "first female" in key political positions. Black was the first female caucus chair in the state Senate and the first woman to serve as budget chair in the House of Representatives. Yet she contends she is running for governor solely on her credentials, background and experience.

"She doesn't believe people should vote for her because she's a woman; she believes people should vote for her because she's the most qualified person to lead the state of Tennessee," Black's spokesperson Chris Hartline told CNBC.

Black is also running on a fairly hard-line conservative platform. She touts anti-abortion and pro-gun ownership positions. She also supports Trump's aggressive border policy and has introduced legislation in Congress to allow for private contributions for the president's proposed border wall.

Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.
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Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.

"I don't think that this is a decision that someone will make on gender," she recently told Nashville Public Radio. "You know, what I tell young women is, rather than just worrying about your gender, what I want you to be is the smartest person in the room. And if you are, you're always going to rise to the top."

She was long seen as the front runner in the primary, but businessman Bill Lee has made headway in recent weeks.

Black isn't the only woman in the race. Republican Beth Harwell, who became the first female speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2011, is seen as lagging behind the other contenders in the primary.

Trailblazers, but maybe at a cost

Barbara Trautman, president of the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women, said the candidates' success has inspired other women to get involved in local Tennessee politics.

"These ladies are trailblazers," she said. "They are paving the way and encouraging other women to follow."

Wins by Blackburn and Black in November would also come at a cost, noted Dittmar, the Rutgers political science professor. If both win this November, there is a good chance that will leave the state with no female representation in the House. Twelve women have filed to be candidates in House primaries, but none are incumbent.

"This is a reminder that political progress for women in any individual state is not inevitable, and not always a positive sloped line," she said. "When you gain representation in one spot, you lose it elsewhere."