Female candidates are calling out sexism more aggressively on the campaign trail

Key Points
  • Female politicians have historically avoided responding directly to sexism, for fear of backlash over appearing weak or victimized, but  they are reacting differently this year, experts say.
  • "Of course these women are calling out sexism," says Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton aide. "They're part of the backlash and movement against electing sexual predators like Donald Trump."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn
Cameron Costa | CNBC

Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen casts herself as a woman of the people. She worked her way through college as a waitress, worked her way up the corporate ladder as a computer programmer and opened her own consulting business. Now, she is running in a competitive race for U.S. Senator in the state.

Her rival, GOP Sen. Dean Heller, tried immediately to raise doubts about her record, a tactic often used to discredit female candidates. Heller ran an ad in July accusing her of lying on her resume. "No computer degree. She made it up," the ad said. It claimed a business Rosen founded "didn't exist." A week later, Rosen disclosed an official transcript and documents to prove her degree in computer science and employment history.

"Women running for office often have their qualifications questioned, but Senator Heller's desperate, baseless and over-the-top attacks should not be accepted as politics as usual," Rosen told CNBC. In September, following Rosen's primary win, Heller's campaign was exposed for running digital ads featuring photo shopped images of her eyebrows, a blatant "sexist attack," spokesperson Sarah Abel said.

Rosen is one of multiple high-profile candidates striking back against gendered attacks in the 2018 election. While female politicians have historically avoided responding directly to sexism, for fear of backlash over appearing weak or victimized, they are reacting differently this year, experts say.

After President Donald Trump's victory in 2016, women's marches and the MeToo movement defined 2017. The mobilization and anger translated to the 2018 election, where a surge of female candidates in both parties are running in battleground territories. And sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have led some female candidates to rip at their opponent's responses favoring Kavanaugh and dismissing accusers.

"There's a real heightened sensitivity to sexism and misogyny this year, and more people are calling it out," said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "For women, it's politically less risky to call out sexism."

A record number of women are running for office this year, and many are newcomers with a wide range of backgrounds. The overwhelming majority is Democrats.

"Of course these women are calling out sexism," said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton aide. "They're part of the backlash and movement against electing sexual predators like Donald Trump."

Gretchen Whitmer
Jose Juarez | AP

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump's accusation that Clinton played the "woman's card" heightened debates on sexism and gender politics. But sexist attacks from Trump garnered little response from Clinton and her campaign, which made a conscious decision to avoid the issue. After her loss, Clinton admitted that she didn't want to appear angry by pushing back for fear of alienating certain voters.

"Women are put in a double bind. If she calls out sexism, she looks like a victim. No one wants a victim as a leader. So she ignores it and tries to win anyway," said McIntosh.

But fear of appearing angry and weak seems to be dissipating for some women. Even conservative candidates, who have avoided gender in their campaigns, are making the shift.

For Republican women, calling out sexism is a calculated risk, said Dittmar, noting that Republicans, especially women who voted for Trump, do not view sexism the way Democrats do. For instance, in the 2016 election cycle analysts argued that gender — including Trump's "woman's card" rhetoric and allegations of sexual misconduct waged against him during the campaign — would shape voter choice to favor Clinton. But a significant gender gap failed to emerge, particularly among white women who voted for Trump at higher rates than Clinton.

GOP candidate Marsha Blackburn, running neck in neck with Democrat Phil Bredesen in Tennessee's highly contested Senate race, has said she doesn't run on the "gender issue." But her campaign has consistently called out sexism.

"Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can't win a general election is just a plain sexist pig," Blackburn spokesperson Andrea Bozek told CNBC in February. In September, when Bredesen called Blackburn "a big girl" who could make decisions about missed votes, her campaign said he "should be ashamed for his condescension toward women." And a recent campaign ad shows a 1972 newspaper headline 'Book sellers end sex discrimination' with a picture of Blackburn, as the narrator boasts that she was the first woman hired at her Southwestern book-selling company.

"When Blackburn calls out sexism, she might as well wear an 'I'm a hypocrite sign' on herself. She voted to put Trump, a sexual predator, in the White House," said McIntosh.

Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Dittmar said female candidates this year, regardless of partisanship, can count on portions of the electorate to support complaints of sexism, though it remains unclear whether calling out sexism more candidly is a fundamental shift that will infiltrate future campaign strategies.

In Michigan's governor's race, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer hit her opponent, Republican Bill Schuette, for what she deemed "sexist barbs." Whitmer has accused Schuette of sexism for repeatedly comparing her to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state's only female governor. Recent polls show Whitmer taking a narrow lead.

Kentucky congressional candidate Amy McGrath responded to attack ads from her opponent, Rep. Andy Barr, who derided her as a 'feminist' and 'radical:' "I'm calling B.S. on the usual way of responding," she said. Another ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund shows a photo of McGrath alongside leading Democratic women — Clinton, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California — which McGrath dismissed as "inherent sexism." McGrath, a former fighter pilot, would be the first woman to represent the conservative Kentucky district if she unseats Barr, though most polling suggests Barr has a single-digit lead.

Other candidates include New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who fired back at GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis when he called her a "Girl … or Whatever," and in August, likened a $10,000 debate offer from conservative columnist Ben Shapiro to catcalling — the practice of whistling or making undesired comments to women who pass by on the street. "I don't owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. "And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one."

More female candidates are criticizing their male opponent's responses to the Kavanaugh allegations, too. Ocasio-Cortez ripped Republicans on Wednesday: "If I'm off on a single number while on live TV, Republicans fly out screeching that I am unfit for office. Yet when their buddy is credibly accused by multiple women of sexual assault, they rush to promote him to the Supreme Court."

"Just another day for women in the workplace," she continued.

"The Kavanaugh accusations have put Republican men running for office in a tough spot. They're now asked by every news outlet how they'll vote, and this will be a clear litmus test on where they stand with respect for women," said Jen Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

Rosen criticized Heller over his comments on sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh when he characterized allegations as a "hiccup" and predicted that Kavanaugh would soon win Senate confirmation.

In a tweet, Rosen said: "Unbelievable: Senator Heller just dismissed a credible sexual assault allegation as a 'hiccup.'"