A handful of Republican women considering major political bids in Minnesota in 2018 would be looking to buck a daunting historical trend: Their party has never chosen a woman to run for governor or U.S. senator.
So far, the nine Republicans to join the open race for governor in 2018 are men. So is the one candidate so far for U.S. Senate, seeking to challenge DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Both of the party’s candidates for attorney general are men, as are the state’s three members of Congress and all the declared GOP contenders so far for the other five House seats.
That could still change — two Republican women told the Star Tribune they still might join the governor’s race, along with at least one considering a congressional bid. But it’s in notable contrast to the DFL, where three of the six declared candidates for governor next year are women. And it comes at a time when Republicans in Minnesota and nationally are adapting to a reshaped political landscape under President Donald Trump, who many critics on the left see as hostile to women’s rights.
“I think there is a strong appetite to see women in higher office,” said state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who is considering a bid for governor. “This last presidential race made it clear too that women do come to the table, and they are very equipped to serve. And I think if there’s an absence [of women] on the ballot, people are going to go: ‘Why?’ ”
It’s not clear what’s behind the dearth of GOP women stepping forward in Minnesota. The last Republican women to hold statewide office in Minnesota were state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer and Patricia Anderson, who respectively served as secretary of state and state auditor until losing their 2006 re-election battles. Republican Michele Bachmann left Congress in 2015 after five terms.
In interviews with nearly a dozen Republican women — past and former elected officials among them — some suggested that what seems like a shortage of women candidates simply reflects a party trying to rebuild after a decade of losses at the statewide level — or longer, in some cases. DFLers have held the governor’s office since 2010, both U.S. Senate seats since 2009, and the attorney general’s office since 1971.
“There aren’t a lot of women on the bench in the Republican Party anymore,” said Anderson, who briefly ran for governor in 2010 before dropping out to run for her old auditor post. (She lost.) The dilemma extends to the Legislature: While the Republican House majority leader is a woman, both House and Senate GOP caucuses are disproportionately composed of men. (That’s also true of the Senate DFL caucus.)
Several of the women frequently floated as good statewide prospects for the GOP have already ruled out a bid for higher office in 2018. That includes Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who said she is “definitely not” planning a run for state auditor.
But others say there are plenty of qualified Republican women — but they may just be waiting for the right time to jump in.
Jennifer DeJournett, president of Voices of Conservative Women, a group that supports and trains conservative women candidates, said women from both sides of the political spectrum often take longer to decide if they’ll run for office. She said some potential candidates in Minnesota may be sizing up the field — and perhaps taking a bit longer to convince themselves that they’re the best person for the job.
“Women tend to run when they feel like: ‘This won’t get done unless I’m there,’ ” she said. “It isn’t necessarily about title collecting, it’s about actually doing the job.”
That group may include Rosen, who said she’ll spend the fall assessing if she’ll join the governor’s race. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said she might run it, too.
Koch said Republican voters are less likely to make a candidate’s gender a focus of voting decisions. But she said it’s clear that having women candidates helps recruit more women to the party and to think about running for office themselves.
“Sometimes you hear about a ‘Republican war on women,’ which I have never found that and don’t believe that, but it can have an effect,” Koch said. “So it’s incumbent upon Republicans to make sure they’re casting a wide net, and then it becomes about the best candidate, best person for the job.”
Republicans are hoping in 2018 to win three largely rural congressional districts that Trump won last year but which are currently held by DFLers. All the GOP candidates so far are men.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said she’s “seriously considering” a bid for the open seat in southern Minnesota’s First District and will decide in the next couple months. But she said her gender would not be her selling point.
“If I run for the First Congressional District, it’s because I believe I will be the very best candidate to represent the district,” Nelson said.
Minnesota Republican activists recently elected Jennifer Carnahan, a businesswoman and political newcomer, to lead their state party.
“I think that eventually makes a difference, but that’s not an immediate thing,” said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a former DFL House Speaker who ran for governor in 2010. She won the DFL endorsement that year but lost the party primary to Gov. Mark Dayton.
Minnesota has had 40 governors in its history, all of them men. Klobuchar is the only woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. Neighboring Iowa currently has Republican women serving as both governor and U.S. senator.
Some Republican women who have harbored thoughts of higher office said they are concerned about the evolution of the party under Trump — caught in a dilemma of wanting to serve but unsure if their interests align with the top of their party.
Jennifer Gumbel, an attorney and the former mayor of LeRoy, Minn., launched an unsuccessful bid for the state House in 2010 and said she could see herself running for office again. But not at the moment.
“I know there have been a lot of previously active people in Republican politics who just don’t know where they fit anymore after Trump being the head of the party,” Gumbel said. “I don’t think that necessarily cuts a particular way gender wise ... but I’m in the boat of not knowing where I fit right now.”
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790