Harri Anne Smith

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Alabama Republicans Harri Anne Smith and Cheryl Baswell Guthrie will find out tomorrow if they will reach their long-shot goal of joining the tiny band of Republican women in the party’s congressional right wing next year.

Both women placed second in congressional primary races on June 3, winning just enough votes to land a spot on tomorrow’s runoff ballot.

If either woman wins, she will head into the general election, and perhaps win a seat in the House of Representatives next year.

“In my own state, I have stood up for what I believe in,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “I would love to go to Washington and do the same thing.”

Smith and other socially conservative women may have a difficult time turning those dreams into reality this election year.

It’s not an easy group to quantify because each lawmaker has a unique set of beliefs. But in general, they can be expected to support free-market principles, oppose federal entitlements and support an aggressive national defense. They also tend to favor low tax rates for individuals, support religious expression in the public sphere and oppose abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage.

Of the 88 women currently serving in the House and Senate, 25 are Republican. Of those, about 10–or less than 2 percent of the Congress–reliably vote in accordance with conservative principals, according to the American Conservative Union, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that rates lawmakers’ records.

Female Voter Bloc

A national survey of likely voters conducted in June by the Polling Company, based in Washington, D.C., found that 32 percent of female respondents identified as “conservative.” The margin of error was about 5 percent.

In the Senate, only two women–Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas–earned an American Conservative Union score higher than 80 percent last year.

In the House, only eight women scored above 80 percent on the group’s test last year. One of those women–Barbara Cubin of Wyoming–is retiring this year. Republican Cynthia Lummis is running in a crowded primary on Aug. 19 to succeed Cubin.

Political observers don’t expect the ranks of conservative women to grow this year.

Smith and Guthrie–two women whose candidate statements suggest they would earn high marks from the American Conservative Union–head into tomorrow’s runoff as underdogs. Guthrie, a businesswoman, took just 18 percent of the vote in the June 3 primary race against insurance executive Wayne Parker. And Smith, a state senator, got 22 percent in her primary race against state Rep. Jay Love.

Smith remains upbeat despite the odds: “We’re really trying to get our voters back out,” she said.

Guthrie declined to comment.

GOP Women Face Difficulties

The dim outlook for the two women’s campaigns reflects a broader problem for Republican women this year, said Barbara Palmer, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of 2006 book “Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections.”

Voters’ top concern this year is the faltering economy, made worse by the escalating cost of gas, she said. And the party that controls the White House during tough economic times generally takes the blame in election years, she said.

That is bad news for both moderate and socially conservative Republican women, Palmer said.

Moderate Republican women are perennial targets of the Democratic Party because they tend to represent competitive districts that could swing to the other party. Some examples this year are Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

This year, Democrats are trying to knock off Republican women in districts once considered safe in the hopes that the current political climate has jeopardized their seats. These include lawmakers like Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado and Thelma Drake of Virginia, both of whom are vulnerable to Democratic challenges, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional elections.

But getting into Congress is tough in any year. Women from the Republican Party’s more socially conservative wing are simply less likely to run for office, says Susan Carroll, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick. That’s because, by definition, such women often think serving in public office is incompatible with the kind of traditional gender roles they tend to support.

“Conservative women have chosen to do other things than run for Congress,” said Michele Easton, president of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a group in Herndon, Va., that mentors young women who identify as conservatives.

Palmer said it’s more than just choice that keeps them out of Congress. Voters, she said, perceive women as more liberal than men.

That stereotype hurts conservative women because Republican primary voters, who more often than general election voters hold traditional religious views and represent the party’s hard line on abortion, often share that perception.

The stereotype benefits Democratic women because they are seen as more liberal and are therefore more likely to get elected by voters that dominate Democratic primaries.

Identity Politics Less Reliable

Another disadvantage for Republican women is that they cannot rely on identity politics to the same extent that Democratic women can, said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee in Arlington, Va., that bundles campaign contributions for female candidates who oppose abortion.

“Republican voters are less inclined to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman,” she said. “That is the positive spin on it. The negative spin on that is that the conservative woman candidate is a little less likely to tout the fact that she is a woman, and she ought to be elected because of that. In some districts that helps, in some districts that hurts.”

Together, these factors have left conservative women with scarce representation on Capitol Hill, which Easton said hurts that wing of the party because women are less likely to “deal away their principles.”

Their numbers aren’t expected to grow much.

The political action committee associated with Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group led by women in Washington, D.C., has endorsed only one female candidate, Sydney Hay of Arizona, who is running in a crowded primary on Sept. 2.

For its part, the Susan B. Anthony List has endorsed Hay and only a few other challengers. They include former Reps. Anne Northup of Kentucky and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, neither of whom are favored to win by Cook.

Nevertheless, Allison Kasic, a scholar at the Independent Women’s Forum, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that lobbies for free-market economic policies, said the future is bright. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, she notes, is a member of the House GOP leadership. And Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate.

“There are a lot of young rising stars within the conservative movement who happen to be female,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised for them to lead a new generation.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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