Commentary: GOP needs to be serious about women candidates

The burning question of the recent presidential campaign, as cynics put it, was this: "Is the U.S. more sexist or racist?" Sexism won, but only by a bobby pin.

Of course that's a fairly simplistic reading of the outcome. The African-American man was elected. The woman was not. But race and gender bias seem nowhere to be found in the Nov. 4 election returns. In fact, one of the unnoticed election results was a slight uptick in the number of women serving in the U.S. Congress. Ten new women were elected - a net gain of three seats over the previous congressional session - making the total now 74. That is a significant nudge toward having enough of a voting bloc to really push legislation.

It's not headline-grabbing, but incremental gains like these are where women impact politics. Women are now 16 percent of House of Representatives. Here is a nugget of information that might surprise some people: In every election since 1980, U.S. women have voted at higher rates than men, according to The White House Project, a group that supports women's political gains, with an eye toward breaking the gender barrier to the highest office in the land.

Clearly, some in the U.S. still have issues with race and gender. In a weird cross-pollination of the two issues, racially charged death threats against Barack Obama rose toward the end of the campaign, according to Secret Service officials, roughly at the time Sarah Palin escalated her rhetorical onslaught against Obama as "palling around with terrorists." Nice going, governor.

And the post-election treatment of Palin by some in her own party gives weight to the idea that sexism is alive and well in politics. Anonymous sources in the campaign characterized her as an airhead and a "diva" with expensive taste in clothes. She called them "jerks." I told you this would happen.

After Palin was chosen as Sen. John McCain's seemingly unvetted running mate, I penned this: "I don't envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working person can have is to be plucked from the herd and placed into a job she is not able to fulfill." McCain's people knew Palin was not ready for such an office. Her down-home demeanor is what she was known for. The McCain ticket banked on her to rouse the conservative Christian edges of the party and maybe take along a few Hillary supporters gone astray.

I seriously doubt the McCain camp would have been quite so ready to brush off their own failed campaign tactics, had McCain chosen a man who was as unqualified as Palin. And there are many mediocre male members of Congress they could have chosen for the VP slot.

One way to tell when a minority has reached parity with the majority is see how well the mediocre members of that group do. In other words, when the least brainy of a historically marginalized group can get ahead just like the dopes within the majority group, that's equality. Maybe women aren't quite there yet. Still, Hillary Clinton is brilliant. Had she won the Democratic nomination, I believe she would be the president-elect today. But she was up against an equally brilliant opponent who ran a savvier campaign.

The Republican Party had better start doing a better job honing its female talent if they want to take back the nation's political reins.

According to the White House Project, of the 133 female major party nominees in 2008, 96 - or 72 percent - were Democrats. And of the women who will take up new posts in Congress come January, eight are Democrats and only two are Republicans.

The Republican Party needs to regroup, and surely it will. But GOP leaders had better be sure to cultivate far more women candidates than they do now. And they should learn from the Palin episode. Never again should they elevate an unqualified candidate as a token. And never again should they humiliate a woman candidate who loses an election. It tends to undercut the good will of, oh, about half the population.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at