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Republican Senate candidates are singing the same tune, for the most part, this cycle. They’re echoing former President Trump’s messaging about the “radical Left,” and they’re criticizing President Biden on inflation and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But women running in crowded primaries are striking a different tone.
Former Business Council of Alabama CEO Katie Britt says she’s a “mama on a mission,” as she competes to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, plastering the slogan on podiums when she makes campaign stops. In Ohio, former state party Chairwoman Jane Timken is leaning in, saying that “women, specifically the mama bears … are leading a political awakening in this country.”
Across the country, female Republican candidates are emphasizing their motherhood while attacking their opponents’ masculinity, painting themselves as tough, conservative fighters to differentiate themselves from their male opponents.
“We all know guys who overcompensate for their inadequacies, and that description fits the guys in the Senate race to a T,” Timken says in a statewide advertisement. “Well, I’m different. I’m the MAGA conservative with a backbone.”
With conservatives across the country furious about school closures and mask mandates, campaign officials and experts told National Journal that Republican women might be able to uniquely tap into the anger of the primary electorate.
"As most parents know, when something threatens your children, you fight," Timken said in a statement to National Journal. "Democrats' out-of-touch policies are threatening the future of this country, and they've poked the mama bears. I'm a mom on a mission ready to take back our country and fight for American jobs, stronger borders, and parents' rights in education so our children's future is secure."
Two weeks ago, Britt launched an ad focusing on school closures, and she had choice words for the boys’ club in the upper chamber she’s aiming to join.
“This is what liberals want every classroom in America to look like. Biden and Fauci want to shut everything down, steal our freedoms and lecture us about right or wrong,” Britt said in the ad. “At the business council, I told Fauci to stay out of Alabama, because we are open for work. And in the Senate, I’ll tell all those boys in Washington to man up, get our economy going, and get kids and God back in the classroom.”
Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said both spots reminded her of Sen. Joni Ernst’s breakout ad in her first campaign in 2014, in which she talked about castrating hogs.
“There’s a bit of a dynamic in Republican primary politics that there’s an assumption that women won’t be as conservative and won’t be as tough and strong as the men,” Walsh said. “So they have to prove that, and you see it coming out in these ads.”
Lauren Zelt, a spokesperson for Maggie’s List—a PAC that helps elect conservative women—said it’s important to remember that women candidates are put under a “more magnified microscope than their male counterparts.” She said that social media has helped level the playing field, because instead of relying on local news coverage, women candidates are able to get their message out themselves.
“Women are having an easier time now demonstrating their values and what they stand for,” Zelt told National Journal.
The dynamics for women running in these crowded primaries isn’t the same race-to-race. While Timken is still competing for Trump’s endorsement, the former president had already backed Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama before Britt launched her campaign. Even so, Britt's campaign strategy “was, and continued to be, totally different,” according to Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC, a group dedicated to electing Republican women.
“Britt has been able to focus on getting her message out to voters,” Conway told National Journal. “She is a thoughtful conservative with a heart for public service.”
“Katie’s momentum continues to grow every day, because her message is resonating strongly,” said Sean Ross, a spokesperson for Britt. “It is clear that Alabamians know she will be a mama on a mission to defend Alabama’s Christian conservative values, preserve our freedoms, and fight for hardworking families and small businesses across the state.”
In her first digital ad of the campaign, Britt appears next to her husband, Wesley, a 6-8 former lineman for the University of Alabama and the New England Patriots.
“As Alabama’s former team captain, I know about toughness,” he said. “I’ve knocked heads with the baddest dudes in the SEC and the NFL. But the toughest person I’ve ever met stands just 5-4. My wife, Katie, doesn’t have an ounce of quit in her. And trust me when I say: She’s fired up to take it to Biden and his crew.”
Walsh said that Britt’s husband could help win over some incredulous voters.
“It’s a smart move, right?” Walsh said. “You get somebody that nobody would think is not tough and hasn’t dealt with a lot of tough people in life, saying, ‘She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met.’”
Education has been a calling-card for GOP candidates—more specifically, mask mandates and school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an issue that helped catapult Glenn Youngkin to the governor's mansion in Virginia last year and Senate candidates think they can replicate his success.
It’s an issue that Timken has leaned into. In a July 2021 op-ed, Timken urged parents to “stand up and fight back against the left’s continued power grabs that place teachers unions and leftist ideology first.” She ran ads in October with images of someone putting a mask on a child in a classroom, calling it “child abuse” and saying that, “as a mother, it breaks my heart.”
“I would say that parents are the new special interest group in politics, period,” Zelt said, noting that mothers are especially attuned to the education that their kids are receiving. With at-home learning and pandemic restrictions putting curriculum and schools under a microscope, she said, “that’s why you’ve seen support for school choice rise exponentially, because people are realizing that they can take their dollars elsewhere.”
Zelt said she believes women candidates are uniquely positioned to tap into the frustrations parents feel and translate that into votes.
“[Women] know how to get things done at home. They know how to get things done in the office,” she said. “And in an era of partisan gridlock, voters are looking for candidates that can cut through the noise and make a difference for people.”