SALEM, Ind. — Erin Houchin had a long day.
Sitting down to dinner with her family, still in a blazer and dress from campaign events, the Republican Indiana state senator and congressional candidate had traded her espadrille wedges for some untied sneakers that her kids told her would make her trip.
That morning, Houchin had attended a campaign team meeting to coordinate volunteer efforts. She’d driven her truck north to a Golden Corral restaurant for a meet-and-greet with retired federal workers.
She’d fielded questions about Obamacare (she’d repeal it but “keep the good parts”) and about the mysterious self-funding rival candidate who recently moved to her district.
Houchin, 39, is the only mom and the only woman running in a competitive five-way Republican primary for the 9th District, a safe Republican seat Rep. Todd Young is vacating to run for Senate .
Moms have been running for office for decades, but they’re still a minority in Congress. According to 2012 exit polls , mothers with children at home represented 20 percent of the electorate — disproportionately higher than their numbers in Congress.
At least 87 of the 104 women in the 114th Congress are moms, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. But fewer of those women are mothers to school-age kids. In fact, only 14 moms in Congress are age 50 or younger, according to a Roll Call analysis of data from the CAWP. That would make young moms’ representation in Congress around 3 percent.
“I’m the rose between the thorns,” Houchin tells voters of her place on the ballot. Polling conducted for a super PAC backing the self-funder puts Houchin at third, behind the current attorney general.
After sitting through show-and-tell with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (that week’s hot item was a vintage vegetable slicer), it was off to meet with the mayor of Greenwood, who’s the co-chairman of her campaign.
Ninety miles to the south, past crop fields and the occasional Amish buggy, her three kids had to be shuttled from the babysitter to play practice later that afternoon. By 6 p.m., Houchin had them back at the family’s airy brick house in Salem. In between, she’d made fundraising calls. Houchin has raised the most money of her five primary opponents.
Her husband Dustin, the Washington County prosecutor, is the chef. But Houchin’s day wasn’t over after meal-time. One big task remained for after dinner: spelling.
Sounding out letters didn’t come as easily to Houchin’s son Graham, 7, as it did to her two older girls, so Houchin devised a color-coded phonics system that requires her to type up the week’s assigned words, then cut them up into little pieces he can arrange like a syllabic puzzle. They practice every weeknight that she’s home, and when she’s in Indianapolis at the state Senate, Claire, 12, takes her place.
The only woman in the race
When Houchin knocks on doors, she inevitably gets questions about her husband’s bid for Congress.
This isn’t Houchin’s first campaign, and it’s not her first as a mom either, which she makes sure to tell voters. When running for district GOP chairwoman, she was nine months pregnant with Graham. She attended a Lincoln Day Dinner on a Saturday, she boasted, and on Monday morning, she was giving birth to Graham.
What she heard back then — “It’s not your turn” — she heard again during her 2014 state Senate campaign and again this year. “I can do it. I’m tougher than I look,” she told the Golden Corral lunch crowd.
Houchin, a former family case manager for the Indiana Department of Child Services, is used to tour groups at the state house mistaking her for a staffer, and telling her, “We’re waiting for the senator.”
It’s clear there aren’t enough young women running for federal office, said Kate Farrar, president of the non-partisan Women Under Forty PAC, which has endorsed Houchin, but there’s especially a dearth of young Republican women.
Houchin recalls that among her 50-person class at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale in 2008, only six were Republicans. In Congress, there are nearly three times as many Democratic women as there are Republican women.
“Women often have to be encouraged to run and they also have to feel like they’re fully prepared before they ever make a decision to go,” Houchin said in an interview in Washington earlier this year. “If I had to guess, I’d say maybe the Democrats are doing a better job of encouraging.”
Being the only woman in the race has its benefits, she said. “It probably makes me a little bit harder to attack,” she said. On the flip side, for a GOP primary, she said, “They do try to pin me as a moderate because I’m a woman.”
The mom platform
Her gender makes her stand out, but it’s her role as a mother that forms one of her biggest talking points. “I’m really the only candidate in this race who has that daily reminder of why we do what we do,” Houchin told voters at Golden Corral.
Actively talking about motherhood on the trail as a qualification for public office, instead of simply a way to convey empathy, is a relatively new phenomenon — and one being used by women candidates of both parties, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“They can use motherhood in a way that is not relegated to traditional norms about family,” Dittmar said, but instead to argue that they’re uniquely positioned to care about the country’s economic future or national security, for example.
More and more, she said, female candidates are spotlighting their kids, or at least talking about them on the trail. Houchin proudly tells crowds that Claire was elected mayor of her 5th grade class days before her mom won her state Senate seat. In New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s first television ad of this cycle, her 11-year-old daughter does all the talking, touting her mom’s experience.
That’s a shift, Dittmar says. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, we would tell women, ‘Don’t show your kids’ because people will question whether you can do the job and raise your kids.”
Even if public perceptions about moms running for office have changed, doing it still requires trade-offs. Before she had her kids vote at their weekly family meeting about whether she should run for Congress, Houchin reached out to 5th District Rep. Susan Brooks, whose own kids were seniors in high school and college when she was first elected in 2012.
Technology has made being a congressional mom much easier, said Brooks. Already, Houchin is used to video messaging with her kids and emailing Graham’s spelling list when she stays overnight two hours away in Indianapolis for state Senate work.
When it’s your mom
But balancing parenting and politics, said Brooks, isn’t just a woman’s problem. Plenty of men, including Indiana Reps. Todd Rokita and Todd Young, have made the decision to keep their families back in their districts, which is a long-standing source of contention within the Indiana delegation .
If elected, Houchin would do the same. With a mom who was the former southeast regional state director to Sen. Dan Coats and the campaign manager for their dad’s first election, Houchin’s kids love politics — “I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Claire Houchin said — but they want no part of moving to Washington.
At home, the kids eat on ‘First Ladies of the United States’ and ‘Signers of the Declaration of Independence’ placemats and Houchin lets them stay up on debate and primary return nights.
Claire and Elaine, who is 10, were fans of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Houchin kept her cards closer to her chest, but admitted that Donald Trump is worrisome for her party’s appeal to women. At the end of the day, though, she’d take “anybody” over the Democrats.
At the family’s Wednesday dinner, chatter moved from politics to permission slips. Elaine announced she needed to come up with a costume for her class’ wax museum project, in which students dress up as a famous person from Indiana.
“Larry Bird,” Houchin suggested. “All the boys want to be Larry Bird,” Elaine protested.
“How about Erin Houchin?” Dustin offered from the opposite head of the table. The kids laughed and looked at their mom.
“No. No one’s ever heard of her,” the candidate said.