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In Minnesota governor races, women have been stuck in 'bridesmaid' role

For women who may have aspirations to be the governor of Minnesota, their status has been a version of “‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

And there's no immediate change in sight.

In 2014, three of the male candidates for governor — the DFL incumbent Mark Dayton and two of his Republican challengers, Dave Thompson and Marty Seifert — already have selected women as their running mates.

It’s highly likely that Republicans Scott Honour, Jeff Johnson and Kurt Zellers will do the same.

The past six lieutenant governors have been women.

The few Republican women who expressed interest in taking on Dayton for the state’s top job never materialized as serious contenders.

Groups like Voices for Conservative Women were actively encouraging women to try for the GOP nomination, with no luck. Earlier, state Sen. Julie Rosen and Karen Housley signaled that they might join the competition, but both backed away.

“I think it’s tough, especially in my party,” said Pat Anderson, a former Republican state auditor who tried a candidacy for governor in 2010, only to switch back to the auditor’s race, which she lost.

“It’s harder for a female candidate to get nominated [for governor],” she said.  “There’s still some heavy testosterone in the party.”

In 2010, it proved tough for a DFL candidate as well. Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, then House speaker, won her party’s endorsement but lost the nomination to Dayton in the primary.

Minnesota's lack of women gubernatorial candidates has been striking, given that the state has elected women as secretaries of state, auditors, U.S. senators and congresswomen. This year, 28 women in 19 other states (PDF) are candidates for governor.

Both Voices for Conservative Women and womenwinning, a Minnesota group that backs pro-choice female candidates, declined to comment on the state's track record, with both groups clearly wanting to avoid undermining a woman's candidacy.

But Lauren Beecham, executive director of womenwinning, offered this observation in an email exchange: “Looking at political science research, women tend to fare better in open seats. I suspect that the next time the governor’s seat is open, we will have a number of women running across the political spectrum.”

Still, the women currently running for lieutenant governor are leaving positions where they had more power, influence and accountability.

Dayton's running mate, Tina Smith, was his chief of staff. 

Sen. Michelle Benson, who is Sen. Dave Thompson’s running mate, is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s health and human services committee.  Rep. Pam Myhra, Seifert’s choice for running mate, is the Republican lead on early childhood education in the House.

“I am willing to walk away from my House district because I believe in this team,” Myhra said.  “I love the relationship side of politics. Principles and people are more important than position or power or a paycheck.”

Pat Anderson
Pat Anderson

Anderson believes the perfect lieutenant governor pick is someone who enjoys the supportive role. “It’s a position with zero power,” she said.  It’s ribbon-cutting and supporting the governor.”

According to Beecham, also limiting the field is that too few women choose to run for political office. She referred to a study (PDF) by American University that cites reasons as diverse as child care concerns, perceived bias in the political system, dislike of campaign practices, and negative reactions to Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

And that’s too bad, Beecham and Anderson agree. “When women run for office, women win at the same rates as men,” Beecham said.

“If a Republican woman got nominated [for governor], she would get elected,” Anderson maintains.

Myhra — and Smith, in an earlier interview — refused to reflect on whether an eventual run for governor is in their future.

History is not in their favor.  Only nine of the state’s lieutenant governors went on to the top job. They were men.

But observers of both parties believe that 2018 will be the time for a woman at the top of at least one state ticket.

It would be a case of image and opportunity, they say.

The DFL for sure will have an opening, given that Dayton has said that if successful this fall, he would not seek a third term. Democrats could trumpet their party’s inclusiveness by choosing a woman.

And if Republicans are unsuccessful in defeating Dayton this fall, they could confront the party’s “war on women” image.

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Comments (4)

Much like the vice-presidency

Being a heartbeat away from the top job has a lot of similarities to being "20 Feet from Stardom," to use the film (and music) analogy. It's interesting that both the federal and most state constitutions place so much weight on the top job while simultaneously assigning almost no real power or real responsibility to the #2 position. Seems like a serious flaw to me, but one that's not likely to be addressed any time soon.

Republican women, in particular, would have to not only overcome partisan opposition in the election itself, but long before they got to November, they'll have to deal with plenty of hostility to themselves, personally, as well as to the idea they represent, in the organization that's supposed to be supporting them and offering them to the public as a candidate.

Running for public office, especially that of Governor, strikes me as something of a feminist action in the current society, and I've seen no evidence in the past few years that Republicans as a group are at all interested in supporting feminist actions of any kind. It's not an issue I've examined in detail, but an off-the-wall impression (subject to correction, as I'm sure will be forthcoming if the impression is incorrect) is that those Republican female candidates who've been elected to top jobs have done so mostly by ignoring the implications of what they're doing, while simultaneously appealing to the most rock-ribbed conservative political positions. That's the way Jan Brewer's Arizona campaign struck me, though I've never lived there, and can't say I know the details of her campaign's strategy.

For what little it's worth, I'm inclined to agree that the next "open" election for Governor may well see a variety of female candidates. It would be a refreshing change if that were the case.

That's rich

Do you think Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin are feminists? It seems to me you were among those who ridiculed them both at every opportunity. Must have been their feminist-leanings that you found so offensive about their participation in the political process.

Conservatives men see conservative women as conservatives. Liberals see them as women.

"There’s still some heavy testosterone in the party”

While that's true of the republican party (60-40 male), what's the democrats' excuse (60-40 female)? They're actually the party of women.

Yes and no

Well, Aside from Klobuchar the most prominent MN women in politics have been Bachmann and Amy Koch. Who do you think is doing more to raise the profile of electable women in MN?

I've voted for a woman for president already (Lenora Fulani) and I hope to vote for a woman for MN Governor some day. But I'll never vote for a dingbat male or female. Fulani turned out to be dingbat... my bad.