Delaware has never elected a female senator. The state is among seven of the original thirteen states that have never been represented in the Senate by a woman. Delaware may get its first real shot at correcting this oversight should polls bear out in the primary between Christine O’Donnell and Mike Castle today. O’Donnell, the Tea Party favorite, is slated to beat Republican party favorite and 30-year office-holder, Mike Castle. O’Donnell is among a slew of Republican candidates endorsed by Sarah Palin this election season, and Palin’s recent endorsement has breathed life into what was once thought to be a predictable race among Republicans in a traditionally blue state. The seat was once was held by Vice President Joe Biden.
O’Donnell and Castle have been at the center of a nasty campaign that has grown increasingly sexist in recent weeks. I started paying attention to this race a couple of weeks ago after I saw some fishy rhetoric being thrown around in an online spat between Mark Levin and Jim Geraghty, two national conservative radio commentators, over an interview O’Donnell had given to a local station about her 2008 Delaware Senate race. In that race she was the Republicans’ handpicked candidate. In the interview she gave, she apparently confused some of the county results from the 2008 race, leading Geraghty to dismiss her as a serious candidate, suggesting she was radically conservative, too conservative for Delaware surely. Levin retorted via Facebook, “Perspective, Boys, Perspective.” Geraghty, frustrated that his political advice should be challenged, replied, “My mistake, fellas.” This seemed to me to be the typical insider boys’ club-style of talking over a woman’s head. So I started paying attention.
Right after that Sarah Palin endorsed O’Donnell, and I knew the sexist rhetoric would ratchet up. It was only a matter of time. O’Donnell has an unusual background for a Senate candidate. She’s not rich or connected, and in fact has been unemployed for some time now. She has a house foreclosure in her recent history, and a gender discrimination lawsuit against a former employer. She’s Catholic and pro-life, and comes from a large Irish-Italian family. She is single. Nearly all of this has been used against her by an elitist and sexist political establishment both inside and outside Delaware, which includes water carriers in the press.
Which brings us to this last Sunday, two days before the primary, and this smear piece in The Weekly Standard by John McCormack. As William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection aptly described, it uses the nut prong of the nuts-and-sluts strategy to paint O’Donnell as crazy. But it also paints her as so much more than that. The article reports about O’Donnell’s 2005 gender discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against a former employer, and McCormack focuses on three aspects in particular: O’Donnell’s “mental anguish;” the amount of money at stake in the (dismissed) suit ($3.6 million); and and the fact that the suit was against a conservative nonprofit organization. Thus O’Donnell is portrayed as crazy, greedy, and disloyal. These act as dog whistles to the profoundly, if latently, sexist culture so common in the mid-Atlantic and New England. It’s a slightly different kind of sexism than exists in the South, Midwest and Western states (in case anyone thought I was picking on the East Coast).
O’Donnell has also been excoriated for being unemployed and poor, and for losing her house. And yet, given the economy and the demographics of her time and place, these are unsurprising facts. Many people have lost homes; many people, especially women, are poor or have trouble climbing the ladder of success with so many barriers in their paths. She has occasionally misspoken on the campaign trail, which has been used to paint her as a liar and thus unreliable. Many of us remember some of these same tactics being used against Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008.
Christine O’Donnell may or may not be the candidate for you if you live in Delaware. Voters there will have to use their judgment to evaluate her candidacy, and decide for themselves who will best represent them. They shouldn’t have to weigh that decision with a cloud of sexism muddying the information stream. Sadly they do. That’s why it’s important to call out this kind of latent sexism when we see it. I’m not a Delaware voter, and I don’t agree with some of O’Donnell’s politics, but I do defend her right to take a chance getting elected without being targeted because of her gender.
O’Donnell’s candidacy has seen a 17 point surge in support over the last month, with over 60% of Delaware’s registered Republicans supporting her. She may very well win today, and that may carry with it an important lesson in and of itself. Perhaps we can’t eradicate sexism right now, today, but we may be able to find strategies to win in spite of the presence of sexism in the media and on the campaign trail. As Sarah Palin has demonstrated so well this election season, working together and supporting women is one way to do that.