Will Female Republican Candidates Stall on Sexual Harassment? Nah, Probably Not.

April 16, 2018

Are Republican women facing an uphill battle this election cycle? There’s some evidence that potential candidates are being advised to sit out 2018 and wait for a more amenable electoral climate. The women who have opted to run on the GOP ticket this year must navigate a landscape where sexual harassment is an inescapable issue that seems poised to draw them into conflict with President Trump and other members of their party.

Although much of the activism and public discussion of sexual harassment is on the Democratic side of the aisle, women candidates in the GOP can’t seem to avoid drawing questions about it. Sexual harassment is considered to be a “women’s issue” – one that’s thought to be more salient and more important to both female leaders and female voters, because it disproportionately affects women as a group. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that this is the case: 59 percent of women reported having experienced sexual harassment, compared to 27 percent of men. Labeling sexual harassment as a “women’s issue” can be a bit misleading however, because it evokes not only this idea of disproportionate impact on women, but also the expectations that women share a common position on the issue and desire a particular kind of response from elected officials.

Republican women are more likely than Democratic women to see differences between the sexes as the result of the individual choices women make rather than systematic discrimination.

Is this actually the case? Looking at how Democratic and Republican women differ in their attitudes about discrimination against women broadly can be instructive here. In my research, I’ve found that Republican women are more likely than Democratic women to see differences between the sexes as the result of the individual choices women make rather than systematic discrimination. They are also more likely to endorse stereotypes about men and women and to prefer traditional power relationships between men and women. Across all of these survey measures, their attitudes about gender are much more similar to Republican men than to Democratic women.

And these beliefs clearly translate to vote choice. My research on white women voters shows that endorsement of statements like “women demanding equality seek special favors” and “women complaining about discrimination cause more problems than they solve” is strongly related to voting for Donald Trump in 2016.  Alternatively, the more these women see differences between the sexes as a problem that stems from discrimination in American society, the less likely they were to vote for Donald Trump.

Republican and Democratic women are clearly divided on issues of gender-based inequality, and sexual harassment is not an exception. In polling from late March of 2018, just over one-third of Republican women – compared to about two-thirds of Democratic women – reported that men getting away with sexual harassment or assault and people not believing female accusers were “major problems.” Republican women are also more likely to express concerns about men in the workplace; 59 percent say the focus on sexual harassment makes it harder for men to interact with women at work, compared to only 40 percent of women across the aisle. For all of these survey questions, Republican women’s attitudes about sexual harassment are closer to their male counterparts in the GOP compared to women in the Democratic party.

However, these figures may not tell the full story. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in December of 2017, 69 percent of Republican women indicated that “recent reports of sexual harassment and assault as more reflective of widespread problems in society rather than acts of individual misconduct.” This shift toward a more societal perspective on gender-based inequality is a departure from what I observed in 2016, and it’s also the one question where women respond similarly regardless of party. It’s unclear whether Republican women are responding to the sheer volume of accusations and the ubiquity of media coverage when answering this question, or whether they are beginning to think about this problem as a societal issue, rather than as the problematic behavior of individual men

Given that the polling data don’t provide clear guidance, how should Republican women candidates respond when asked the sexual harassment question? Kim Reynolds, the incumbent Republican Governor of Iowa who is currently up for re-election, is situated to provide some insights into this question. She’s faced two high-profile sexual harassment scandals in the Iowa legislature during her tenure in office. The first cost the state a $1.75 million dollar settlement to a former staffer of Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix. Dix later resigned, after a video of him kissing a lobbyist went public, but Reynolds drew criticism for not demanding an immediate resignation from his leadership position.

Democrats were also disappointed in her lack of movement toward real policy change. For instance, Senate Minority Leader Janet Peterson (D-Des Moines) said Gov. Reynolds lacks the “backbone” needed to pursue enhanced workplace protections for men. Reynolds herself has made it clear that she doesn’t see this as an issue to can be addressed through legislation. In her Condition of the State address, she noted that “you cannot legislate kindness or respect or morality.”

In the second incident, which occurred in late March, Reynolds took quick action to fire David Jamison, a long-time personal friend, from his directorship at the Iowa Finance Agency when accusations of sexual harassment surfaced. Again, she faced criticism from Democrats, who have clamored for more transparency in the process and more in the way of real policy change. Still Reynolds largely retains the support of her party, many of whom feel like she’s being held to an impossibly high standard in these cases – somehow tasked with creating policy in an institution (the state legislature) in which she doesn’t even serve.

As we can see from the Reynolds example, Democrats and Republicans want different governmental responses to sexual harassment. And taken together with the data on voters’ beliefs about gender-based equality and sexual harassment, it seems likely that this is the case for voters and not just elites. Among Republican voters, both men and women, an approach that closely aligns with Reynolds’ behavior may be their preferred course of action. Republicans likely approve of her zero-tolerance policy, but are reluctant to push for broader policy change, particularly because those policies are so publically championed by Democratic women candidates and officeholders, many of whom cite #MeToo as the cornerstone of their own personal political ambitions. Many Republicans may increasingly see sexual harassment as a problem with society, but like Reynolds, feel that it’s a failure of respect and morality rather than a failure of existing workplace protections that needs to be resolved through legislation.

In 2016, 88 percent of Republican women voted for Trump. Ultimately, these women cast their votes in spite of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment against him during the campaign. And they will vote for GOP women in 2018 too, even if sexual harassment remains a salient issue. For Reynolds, her efforts have likely satisfied GOP-identified women in Iowa, who don’t expect her to move mountains on this issue. She’s taken action, but hasn’t overreached – certainly not in a way that could potentially result in a policy victory that would ultimately benefit the Democratic minority in the state legislature. And her actions haven’t raised questions about where her loyalties lie, as her messaging remains focused on job creation, tax reforms, and the sanctuary city ban. In this way, she has provided a potential roadmap for female GOP candidates seeking to navigate difficult gendered terrain on their paths to office.

Reynolds is unlikely to win over any Democrats with this approach, but doesn’t necessarily need to, as she’s currently polling ahead of her primary challenger and all of the Democratic candidates who’ve declared. However, the outcome of the race is certainly not set in stone. Democratic voters, and particularly Democratic women, may be mobilized by these criticisms of Reynolds and turn out in force to vote against her in the general election.

All of this is not to say that Republican women candidates face an easy road on sexual harassment. To the extent that Democratic candidates generally will rely on sexual harassment to mobilize their base, by branding it a Democratic issue, accusing Republican opponents of an anemic response to the issue, or suggesting guilt-by-association through their connections to the President, female Republican candidates may face a disadvantage from sexual harassment. But it’s likely to be one stemming from asymmetric mobilization rather than express disapproval of how GOP women candidates are handling this issue.

Erin C. Cassese is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Harriet E. Lyon Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at West Virginia University. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinCassese.