Male candidates are navigating gendered terrain in 2018 too

April 24, 2018

In the current election cycle, much of the attention has been on women. How many will run? How many will win? What’s motivating women voters? Will they turn out? But all of this is only half of the gender story of 2018. Men are navigating the gendered terrain of 2018 too.

To start, a review of the numbers shows that men are the majority of candidates running in 2018; as of April 6, men were 78% of filed candidates for the U.S. House. And women are not alone in increasing their candidacies this year; men, particularly Democratic men, are running in higher numbers as well.

The concentration of the candidate “surge” among Democrats in 2018 implies that some of the motivation to run this year is rooted more in partisanship than in gender, but there is no denying that gender dynamics are at play. In the era of #meToo and women’s mobilization, we should be asking if misogyny is a motivator for men, too? As many have made clear over the past year, the responsibility for making lasting institutional and cultural change should not (and can not) fall solely on the shoulders of women. On the campaign trail, will men be asked how they take part in this reckoning? And how will they respond?

A new Pew poll shows that while men are far less likely than women to report being sexually harassed themselves, 58% of Democratic men identify “men getting away with sexual harassment/assault” as a major problem in U.S. workplaces. Will male candidates discuss how they will tackle that problem? Wisconsin House candidate Randy Bryce (D) provides an example. In a March tweet, he touted the unionization of his campaign team as a way to ensure that “every worker feels safe in the workplace.

Male candidates can cue their support for gender equality in other ways. In the Democratic primary for Kentucky’s 6th congressional district, Jim Gray has put out an advertisement advocating for gender equity in pay. Illinois’ Democratic nominee for governor, Jay Pritzker, posted a campaign video celebrating the 2018 Women’s March titled “We Will Be Heard” that built on his October 2017 promise that he is “running as a proud feminist.”

All of these examples come from Democrats, and Bryce and Gray are running against women – Cathy Myers and Amy McGrath, respectively – who have prioritized issues of gender equity in their primary bids. Previous research indicates that men competing against women might be more likely to address “women’s issues” than men running against men, at least when party is held constant as it is in primary races. In my book, I describe this as one of the compensation strategies employed by men in mixed-gender contests. In a year when running against a woman is more likely for Democratic men than in elections past, will we see that political calculations by male candidates yield increased attention to addressing gender equality and inclusion? Moreover, will it take having a female opponent for male candidates to address these issues, or will demand for change by voters – especially progressive women – elicit a response across a broader range of contests?

Not all men running for office see gender power imbalances as a problem, nor will all perceive attention to gender equality as important to their base of voters. One need to only look back to the 2016 presidential race for evidence, where Donald Trump was seemingly unaffected – or even buoyed – by attacks on his rhetoric and behavior as sexist. An October 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted after the release of the Access Hollywood tape found that 41% of Trump voters believed that “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.”

Will GOP candidates seek to tap that same sentiment in 2018, fueled by an even broader movement against (primarily) men’s bad behavior? That approach seemed far less successful in Roy Moore’s 2017 campaign for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat than it did for Trump, but Missouri senate candidate Courtland Sykes (R) may have sought to appeal to the same type of voters when he waged his attack on feminism in January of this year.

The partisan differences in more general perceptions of and demands for gender equality may also shape how male candidates respond in the current election. In a 2017 survey by PerryUndem, Republican men were the least likely to perceive gender inequality as a problem in the U.S.; 39% of Republican men, and 43% of men who voted for Trump, said full equality has been achieved, compared to 20% of all respondents. In contrast, however, 16% of Republican women reported that the work toward gender equality is done. Over 90% of Democratic women, and 87% Democratic men, perceive gender equality as a work in progress.

While voters across parties are likely to prioritize other (albeit related) issues – like economic security, national security, or access to health care – in their vote choice this November, these data indicate that the national debates over and attention to gender disparities in wealth, power, and well-being may influence both voters and candidates differently by party.

Finally, even within this moment of heightened attention to sexism, there is no guarantee that male candidates will be more careful when it comes to their own behavior and rhetoric around women. Just last week, a male candidate for North Carolina’s state senate told voters at a candidate forum that the election, in which he’s competing against a woman, “isn’t a beauty contest” and that the voters shouldn’t pick a candidate “just because she’s pretty.” At a Pennsylvania forum for Democratic congressional candidates in March, a male candidate said that he didn’t think a woman could win the primary race in the 5th district (he later clarified that he did not mean to imply his female opponent couldn’t win due to her gender). These instances serve as small but important reminders that the historic marginalization of women from American politics continues to shape the gendered terrain of campaigns today.

Beyond the rhetoric they employ, the issues the emphasize, or the approach they take to gender equity in 2018, male candidates’ strategic and tactical decisions in this year’s election – just like women’s choices – will either replicate or disrupt prevailing norms of gender in society and on the campaign trail. Whether they tout masculine credentials and use images that present them as manly men (see this ad from Michigan gubernatorial candidate Jim Hines) or offer new models that do not rely upon playing the man card (check out this video from Maryland gubernatorial candidate Rich Madeleno), male candidates play key roles in shaping the likelihood of stasis in or change to political institutions that have long been dominated by men. They are equal parts of the gender story of election 2018, and that is a story – in all of its nuance and complexity – that we need to tell.