A dozen volunteers recently crowded around two tables pushed together in a nondescript office in Norcross, munching on lemon pound cake and filling out postcards in support of their chosen congressional candidate, a fellow woman. As they praised her in pink and purple ink, one of the women grumbled: “I’ve had it with men representing me.”
They had gathered to support Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor from Suwanee who is running for Lawrenceville Congressman Rob Woodall’s seat. Two other women, Kathleen Allen and Melissa Davis, are also among the Democratic candidates in the race. They help total a record number of women running for the U.S. House in this year’s midterm elections.
In all, 352 women — Democrats and Republicans — are campaigning across the country, the largest number ever, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Of those, nine are vying for U.S. House seats in Georgia, also a record, according to the center, which has collected data going back to 1994.
This sets up novel possibilities for two of Georgia’s most closely watched elections. First, Bourdeaux, Allen and Davis are aiming to become the first woman to represent Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.
And in the neighboring 6th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Karen Handel is running for re-election as the state’s first female Republican congresswoman. She’s built a formidable war chest designed to fend off a quartet of Democratic challengers, including a first-time female candidate, Lucy McBath.
No single factor is behind the record number of 266 female Democratic House candidates campaigning this year. Some were driven to run by the election of President Donald Trump, who attacked women based on their looks and who has been caught on tape bragging about grabbing them by the genitalia. Others have been inspired by the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse. And still others are focused on how women make up about half of the nation’s population but fill only 20 percent of the seats in Congress, a fact prominently displayed on Bourdeaux’s campaign website.
Many female Republican candidates don’t fit as neatly into a box, although some cite being troubled by sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men. Many mention wanting to see a return to GOP core principles, such as fiscal responsibility and limited government, while others say they’re inspired to counter the narrative that women are getting involved only in Democratic circles.
Georgia’s first GOP congresswoman
While many Democrats such as Bourdeaux aren’t bashful about discussing policy proposals they think would benefit women specifically, Republicans take a far different approach. Many in the GOP criticize what they see as the left’s obsession with identity politics, even if the party has sought to recruit and promote more women in recent years. They say they’re looking to advance policies that will benefit everyone, including women.
“Ignore us at your own peril. Conservative women and the people who support them are motivated,” said Missy Shorey, the national executive director of Maggie’s List, a group that seeks to bolster conservative women running for Congress. “They’re focused, they know what the issues are and they understand what’s at stake.”
Shorey said her group has seen increased participation since the 2016 elections, especially in response to many left-leaning women taking to the streets to protest against Trump and his policies. Some Republican women are saying: “This can’t go unchecked. They don’t speak for me,” she said.
Maggie’s List and a host of other groups promoting Republican candidates, including the Susan B. Anthony List, backed Handel in the run-up to last year’s 6th District special election. And several are planning to help her in this year’s midterms. The Susan B. Anthony List, which focuses on electing women and pursuing policies that will reduce and end abortion, said it contacted 65,000 6th District voters on Handel’s behalf last year through phone calls, mail and digital advertising. It has spent roughly $20,000 so far on this year’s race.
Handel herself has shied away from discussing her own history-making position since arriving in Washington last summer, even if her political allies grumble that Democrats don’t give her enough respect for breaking through a glass ceiling in Georgia politics. She declined an interview to discuss her views on the subject.
But her campaign site prominently details her opposition to abortion. On Capitol Hill, Handel has taken a more prominent public position as Congress launched inquiries into disgraced USA Gymnastics physician Lawrence Nassar and debated its sexual harassment policies in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
“For decades, misconduct has been swept under the rug. Secret settlements have been paid with taxpayer money, while many turned a blind eye, and victims have been forced to keep quiet in the aftermath,” Handel wrote in an op-ed late last year with fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana. “This culture has been tolerated for far too long. And it has to end.”
The rhetoric called back to Handel’s near-successful run for governor in 2010 as a swashbuckling reformer eager to break up the good ol’ boys network that has long controlled politics under the Gold Dome. As the only female running in a field of seven Republicans and five Democrats that year, she decried what she saw as a culture of “sex, lies and lobbyists.”
Woodall, meanwhile, said he did not believe this year’s surge in female candidates has affected the way he campaigns for re-election or approaches his job in Washington. Even in the #MeToo era, Woodall said he hears more from constituents about issues such as the budget, health care and international relations than he does about gender-specific ones.
“We don’t have those gender-identity politics in Republican politics,” he said. “We don’t have racial-identity politics in Republican politics. Apparently some Democratic districts do.”
“I will be interested to see how that shakes out, but I’m not running to keep a job,” he added. “I’m running to do a job. So I look forward to talking about the job. If you find me talking about identity politics, something bad has happened.”
‘Women have had enough’
Bourdeaux, who says Trump’s election played a big role in her decision to run for office, is campaigning on equal pay for men and women while promoting women’s health care, abortion rights and paid family medical leave. She outraised Woodall in campaign contributions during the first three months of this year.
Further, Bourdeaux has received an endorsement from Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs Democratic women running for office who support abortion rights. The organization, which says it has raised $500 million to support candidates, has also endorsed McBath. Meanwhile, PaveItBlue, an Atlanta-area grass-roots movement that supports equity for women, is organizing forums for candidates and helping them get their messages out, recruit volunteers and solicit donations on Facebook.
“Women have had enough,” said Bourdeaux, a former aide to Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. “We are seeing all over the country that people are ready to elect women.”
Allen, a Norcross resident who works for a nonprofit health care provider, is campaigning on revamping the health care system. She also supports comprehensive health care for pregnant women and their babies, and paid maternity leave for up to eight weeks.
“All this stuff that Trump is undoing with his administration is what (President Barack) Obama did to fill in gaps in the law because Congress wasn’t updating laws,” Allen said. “I see it as my job to go and work on putting forth legislation and co-sponsoring legislation that is going to fill those gaps that have developed in communications, immigration, health care, education — all sorts of issues.”
Davis, a Cumming resident who serves as an advisory committee member with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, supports equal pay for men and women, a “living wage” for families and the federal Head Start program.
“I know what it is like to have adversity,” Davis said. “My mom was a single parent. She worked as a waitress, trying to provide the basics for my three brothers and myself. So, for me, it is really just understanding that we are living in a time where people just simply need help. They need someone to be a voice for them.”
At a recent event with Democratic candidates in Peachtree Corners, Anne Huguenin said it is “awesome” that so many women are running for the U.S. House this year. The retired U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs worker said they could bring a new perspective to Washington.
“If you have two equally qualified candidates and one is a female and one is a male, I would say, ‘Go for the female,’ ” she said, chuckling. “It is amazing to me how long it has taken to get women to anywhere near representational levels in our government. When are we going to have a female president? Ever? Who knows?”
Huguenin is interested in the positions the candidates are staking out on international diplomacy, the Affordable Care Act, gun control, environmental protection and immigration. Her husband, Chuck Horne, chimed in that women could bring “civility” to Congress.
“The men seem to be incapable — or incompetent — to do anything,” the telecommunications consultant said before adding this about the possibility of more women in Congress. “It couldn’t be any worse. Give it a shot.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates ahead of Georgia’s primary on May 22. The AJC has already produced stories looking at gun rights, tax policy and how President Donald Trump factors in the stances candidates are taking. It also has conducted polls to determine what’s most important to voters from the two major political parties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.