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Report: Attitudes Changing Toward Female Candidates

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is one of the Senate GOP's top female candidates this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is one of the Senate GOP's top female candidates this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As top female candidates around the country vie for competitive Senate and House seats in 2014, a report released Monday outlines key opportunities and challenges facing women who run for office.  

Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women, a report from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, outlines shifting perceptions of female candidates. The report cautioned that women still face unique challenges running for office, but the authors also offered promising news for female politicians on voters’ perception of their economic acumen and non-traditional qualifications.  

Foundation President Barbara Lee said the foundation’s research “applies to women running for office at every level,” though it focuses on women running for governor.  

In the midterms, female candidates are running in some of the most high-profile races around the country, including Alison Lundergan Grimes’ challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and state Sen. Joni Ernst’s Senate bid in Iowa. According to the Center for American Women and Politics , 24 women are still in the running for Senate and 220 for House this cycle. Women currently hold 19 percent of seats in Congress. As the economy continues to dominate elections, the report suggests voters are more inclined to trust women on the economy than they have been in past. According to consultants involved in the research, while voters have traditionally been likely to trust men more on the economy if they trust them on most issues, voters commonly remained hesitant to trust women on the economy, even if they trusted them on economic issues.  

Bob Carpenter, a Republican pollster who contributed to the report, explained that with shifting attitudes, “a woman being good on health care and education can translate into being good on the economy.”  

Carpenter and Democratic strategist Mary Hughes also noted that female candidates can increasingly use non-traditional qualifications, such as community service and caregiving roles, without fear of being perceived as weak or under qualified. They argue that this sort of “360 degree candidacy” can help women better connect with voters.  

“Women candidates being themselves has much more power than we realized 15 years ago,” Hughes said.  

Despite some changes likely to benefit women candidates, the report also highlights persistent challenges for female candidates. In particular, the report notes that women pay a higher price for appearing to make mistakes. Carpenter emphasizes that female candidates need to respond quickly to attacks using third-party validators, who the report says are particularly effective for women candidates.  

Despite overall optimism about an improved landscape for women candidates, Lee still maintains “running for office is more challenging for a woman than it is for a man.”