Given the national policy discussions, a recent Republican gubernatorial win, a competitive primary on the Democratic side, Maryland Republican activists should be actively searching for a female candidate to enter the U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski. There is one big problem. The lack of gender diversity among Republican elected officials in Maryland has made this female candidate — someone with the experience and background to take on the Democrats in the general election — tough to find.
Many bristle against the idea of purposefully identifying political candidates on the basis of gender (or race — a topic for another time), arguing that "best qualified" should be the only consideration. The problem with this view of political candidacy is that it assumes men and women enter the political arena under the same circumstances.
The group of individuals from which candidates typically emerge is often referred to as the eligibility pool. For both men and women, this pool is punctuated by successful careers in law and business; for women specifically, careers in education and health care are often precursors to public service (Senator Mikulski was a long time social worker). Given Maryland's high proportion of college degree holders, its focus on education and its vibrant health care industry, the eligibility pool in Maryland should be deep in talent and potentially wide across the political spectrum. Our pool isn't a problem.
The issue becomes clearer when the partisan make-up of the state legislatures — a common rung on the political latter — is considered. Women hold 24 percent of seats in the 50 U.S. state legislatures (1,793 seats out of 7,383), and most of them are Democrats (60 percent). Maryland ranks near the top in regard to women's representation with about 30 percent of its 188 state legislative seats held by women. However, when you break it down by party, only 6 percent of the seats are held by Republican women, whereas 24 percent are held by Democrats. A notable bright spot is Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, who is currently serving in a leadership position as minority whip.
A key predictor of political ambition in women is being actively recruited by party officials to consider candidacy, thus the Maryland Republican Party should consider focusing additional efforts and resources on getting conservative, qualified women out of the pool and on their political bench.
There's more than political correctness or equality at stake here. Investing in the recruitment and training of female candidates is a winning political strategy for both parties, but it may be particularly advantageous for Republicans at this current juncture.
When women run, they are at least as likely to win (and sometimes more so) than similarly situated male candidates. The presence of a female Republican candidate has been shown to diminish the gender gap in voting, which is a major hurdle for Republican candidates. Female candidates are viewed by the constituency as more compassionate and better able to handle education and health care issues. Thus, the issue context of the campaign environment can put female candidates at a substantial advantage in a general election over a man — for example, a situation where reproductive health or the cost of higher education were major national issues.
Make no mistake, politics is a team sport. Political parties should always strive to recruit top individual talent regardless of gender, but dynasties are built when the players on the bench stand ready to bring their unique talents and perspectives to the game. It just so happens that when the game is electoral politics in Maryland, female Republicans might have the right stuff to win — if only someone would ask them to play.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an assistant professor of political science. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @goucherpoll.