As she vies to become Arizona’s next governor, Kari Lake has told supporters they can call her “Trump in a dress any day.” She has courted female voters by describing herself as a “Mama Bear” compelled to run by her anger about Covid-19 restrictions. And she warns drug cartels she would be a worthy adversary because they don’t “want to mess with a middle-aged mama who’s pissed off.”
Her opponent, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, has cast herself as a champion for women as she has made democracy and abortion rights her central focus in their race. She’s argued that her background as a social worker has given her a first-hand perspective on how “restricting women’s autonomy” and curtailing women’s access to reproductive health care – as both this summer’s Supreme Court decision and Arizona’s near-total ban on abortion have done – “hurts women’s physical and mental well-being.”
The messages from Lake and Hobbs are diametrically different, yet uniquely female in what is already a record-breaking year for women seeking to become their state’s top executives. Their race in Arizona is one of five gubernatorial matchups this year where women are facing women – along with Alabama, Iowa, Michigan and Oregon. Up until now, there have only been four woman-versus-woman gubernatorial matchups in all of history, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
In total, 25 women this year have been nominated for governor by the two major parties, a historical record according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Sixteen of them are Democrats and nine are Republicans. They are running for a chief executive role that women have typically been more reluctant to seek than legislative offices like the House, Senate and statehouse.
Within the five all-women matchups, there are potential history makers too. Though Republicans are likely to hold the governor’s offices in Alabama and Iowa, Democrat Yolanda Flowers, who is challenging Alabama GOP Gov. Kay Ivey, and Deidre DeJear, who is running against Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, are among the women vying to be the nation’s first Black female governor (joining Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is in a highly competitive race against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp). Women of color have long been underrepresented within the ranks of those running for governor. The numbers of female nominees for the US House and Senate this year are short of previous records.
“I think we’re chipping away at some of the stereotypes about who can and should be in executive office,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, noting that the number of women who ran for president last cycle has also broadened voters’ expectations. “We’ve seen more and more women do that successfully and more women running for these positions with less of that traditional pushback about whether or not they can do the job.”
Initially it was the 1992 cycle that was heralded as the “Year of the Woman” – when 11 women won major party nominations for the US Senate and 108 for the US House. But the upward trajectory of women in politics has accelerated dramatically just in the past few years. By the 2018 cycle, the number of female nominees for the US House had nearly doubled from the 1992 figures, resulting in more than 100 women serving in that chamber for the first time.
That surge was fueled almost entirely by Democratic women, many of whom were angered by what they viewed as then-President Donald Trump’s sexist and misogynistic rhetoric, including his conduct toward Hillary Clinton, who became the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee in her contest against Trump in 2016. Conservative women made gains in the House in the 2020 cycle after a conscious effort by their party to recruit more of them, though a significant gulf has remained between the two parties’ female representation.
Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor at Chatham University who studies women in politics, said that having greater numbers of women in legislative offices has created a “pipeline effect” that has led to the uptick in women seeking the governor’s office this year.
“Women are much more methodical (than men) about making sure that they have the appropriate experience before they pursue higher office,” Sweet-Cushman said. “There was this shift in 2018 where women started thinking – ‘Well, if not me, then who?’”
“So you see this new crop of women who have skipped that original path and are running for office without any political experience – drawing on their life skills and experiences as mothers, as community organizers, as business leaders in their communities without feeling like they had had to do all of the steps.”
Stark ideological differences as women face women
The central issues of the 2022 campaign have strongly engaged female candidates and voters alike. Voter registration among women surged in several states following the Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that had guaranteed abortion rights. Many Democratic candidates, including Hobbs and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are using that issue as a central force to galvanize female voters who might otherwise skip a midterm election cycle.
But anger over extended school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the charged debates over K-12 curriculum and the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports has also engaged many conservative women, who showed up in droves at school board meetings during the height of the pandemic as Republicans re-framed their agenda around “parental rights.”
The five women-versus-women gubernatorial races this year have created a unique lens to view those policy debates, showcasing the vast ideological diversity among the female candidates.
In Michigan, Republican Tudor Dixon described her race against Whitmer as an “epic battle between a conservative businesswoman and mother and a far-left birthing parent and career politician,” a gibe at the use of gender-neutral language by some progressives.
Dixon argued that she would be an advocate for moms who felt that Whitmer “turned her back on them” as children fell behind academically during the pandemic – a critique of Whitmer’s stance on Michigan school closures. She is increasingly turning to cultural appeals aimed at suburban voters, firing up the crowd at a recent appearance with Trump by saying she won’t allow “our kids be radicalized” or “sexualized.”
Whitmer has ignored many of Dixon’s attacks while campaigning extensively on abortion rights. She has argued that her veto power and her lawsuit challenging a 1931 law that banned and criminalized abortion are the “only reason Michigan continues to be a pro-choice state.” (The law was deemed unconstitutional by a state court judge in September). On the campaign trail, Whitmer is backing a referendum that would protect abortion rights in the constitution and she has spoken about the issue as the mother of two daughters, stating that she is “infuriated by the thought that they have fewer rights than I had my whole life.”
In Oregon, where three women are vying to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, the GOP sees an unusual chance to clinch a governor’s office that they haven’t won since 1982. The formidable candidacy of former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, an independent who has kept pace and even exceeded her opponents in fundraising as of mid-September, has created a path for a Republican to win.
Both Democrat Tina Kotek, a former House speaker, and Republican Christine Drazan, a former state House minority leader, are leaning into their lived experiences as women in their advertising appeals to voters, while Johnson calls herself a “daughter of Oregon.”
Kotek, who could become one of the first out lesbian governors in the country in November, notes in her launch video that she’s been “called a few things over the years” as she highlights her toughness alongside varied credentials such as being a food bank and childrens’ advocate, a legislator and “policy geek.”
“Then there were some other words for tough, that women get called,” Kotek says in the video – with a dramatic pause to indicate a word that she’s not uttering on camera. “And those were the days that I really knew we were getting things done.”
Drazan, who has pounded Oregon’s Democratic leaders for what she viewed as unnecessarily lengthy school closures during the pandemic, has campaigned extensively on education. One of her ads highlights her “parental bill of rights” as an effort to give parents more control, to “keep schools open” and expand school choice, while raising education standards after a controversial bill passed in 2021 that suspended certain graduation requirements for high school students.
“I’m running for governor,” Drazan says in the ad, “but more importantly, I’m a mom.”
Fierce rhetoric emerges in women versus women contests
The ease with which some of the female gubernatorial candidates are using motherhood to explain their views on controversial issues is noteworthy this year, as is the sense of freedom that some of them feel to fiercely engage their opponents after an era where Trump erased the old rule book for decorum.
Prominent female candidates like Clinton have often reflected on the double standard used to judge women against their male peers. Their warmth or likability was often more closely scrutinized by voters. There were even debates about the extent to which they should acknowledge their children, which Clinton has noted was once viewed as a potential liability if they were deemed a distraction from official duties.
The first glint of the more combative style of GOP gubernatorial candidates like Lake and Dixon, who are aligned with Trump, arguably dates back to 2008. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin introduced herself at the Republican National Convention that year by suggesting that her toughness could be explained by the adage that the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull was “lipstick.”
Those earlier debates over how far women could go to demonstrate their toughness on the campaign trail now feel almost quaint in the bare-knuckled politics of the Trump era. Dixon recently shrugged off criticism for joking at campaign events last month about the 2020 plot to kidnap Whitmer, which led the Democratic governor’s campaign to say that Dixon is “absolutely unfit to serve in public office.”
Lake has adopted Trump’s no-holds barred playbook. And some of her attacks on Hobbs would be called out as sexist if they had been uttered by a man. “She’s actually finally campaigning by the way,” Lake said of Hobbs at one event. “She came out last week with the mask over her face. Actually, that might be a good look for her.”
Hobbs told CNN in an interview that Lake has “repeatedly called for my arrest based on unfounded allegations,” adding that “her rhetoric is continuing to ramp up – you know, violent threats and harassment against me.”
When asked whether that tone was surprising – given that her opponent is a woman – Hobbs replied that she doesn’t think “that’s really a gender thing. It’s just the persona she’s portraying in this race.”
Hobbs, who has attacked Lake as “extreme” and “dangerous,” declined to debate Lake this fall, inviting a fresh round of volleys from Lake, a former television news anchor.
The Hobbs campaign justified its decision by equating Lake’s campaign strategy to causing “enormous chaos” and making “Arizona the subject of national ridicule” – a reference to Lake’s embrace of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Hobbs’ campaign manager argued that a debate “would only lead to constant interruptions, pointless distractions, and childish name-calling.”
Lake has cast that stance as cowardice, telling reporters, “The world’s not an easy place.”
“If she can’t stand up and debate me, then she can’t stand up against the cartels,” Lake said. “She needs to show that she has courage and get on that stage.”
Dittmar said Lake is an example of how some conservative women in the post-Trump era are trying to balance voters’ more traditional expectations when it comes to gender – showing they are attentive mothers, for example – with “masculine expectations” that they are tough, strong and combative.
“That’s seen as value often when we’re running for executive office,” Dittmar said. “So conservative women often walk that line, and I think increasingly so in a Trump era, where he has doubled down on masculinism in politics.”
For her part, Lake told CNN it was “fantastic” to see historic numbers of women running for governor, but added she wants to see “more men running as well.”
“I call it the mama bear movement,” she said. “You see the mama bear saying, ‘Wait a minute. We need to get involved at the school board level because we don’t like what’s being taught to our children. We need to get involved in Congress because we need to impact change for America.’ I’m thrilled about it.”