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Women 'Running Unapologetically As Themselves'


There are a record number of women running in this year's midterm elections and especially women with military backgrounds. You might think those candidates would play up their national security credentials, but as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, many of these women candidates are choosing to focus instead on their credentials as mothers.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Democrats are holding a rally at the fairgrounds outside Richmond, Ky. There's a long line for food, and a country band is warming up the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

KURTZLEBEN: The guy singing "Margaritaville"? He's the county jailer running for re-election. But there's one candidate in particular that everyone seems to know...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy.

KURTZLEBEN: Amy McGrath, Democratic candidate for Kentucky's 6th District.

AMY MCGRATH: Awesome to be here tonight, Madison County. This is awesome.

KURTZLEBEN: McGrath is a veteran of the Marines. She's one of a record-setting group of women vets running for the House this year. This race is a toss-up, but it's a district that voted for Trump by 15 points. Incumbent Republican Andy Barr is pushing back by talking about his support of veterans. Female veterans like McGrath have had a remarkable ability to get attention this year. Women standing in front of fighter jets or helicopters have become a common sight in ads. Texas Democrat MJ Hegar talks about her helicopter being shot down and carries a toddler, a large tattoo which covers shrapnel scars peeking out from her shirt sleeve.


MJ HEGAR: Injured and unable to fly, I was barred from my next career choice because I was a woman. So I came home. I worked in health care and business. I got married and started my family.

KURTZLEBEN: According to Amanda Hunter at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, these ads show a shift in strategy.

AMANDA HUNTER: Instead of trying to fit into an outdated template of what a candidate should look like, this year, women are really running unapologetically as themselves. So really using their entire life experience and that includes motherhood, time served in combat.

KURTZLEBEN: Hunter says voters sometimes penalize candidates who are mothers, wondering if those candidates can hold office while taking care of young children. McGrath saw it as a smart choice to bring her own motherhood into her campaign.

MCGRATH: Look. There might not be a whole lot of people that really can relate to being a fighter pilot. Let's just be honest. But there's a ton of people that can relate to being a mom because I am doing it right along with them.

KURTZLEBEN: Francis Klick (ph) attended that rally in Kentucky, and she said that she has veterans in her family.

FRANCIS KLICK: I know the stress and the pressures that is, but her being a mother and juggling everything is more important to me because she understands what it's like.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not just about Democrats, nor is it just that women veterans are trying to show a softer side. In one ad, Arizona Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally used her military background as a way of casting herself as anti-establishment.


MARTHA MCSALLY: I'm a fighter pilot, and I talk like one. That's why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.

KURTZLEBEN: But what's happening with female veterans may be a part of a larger trend.

MISSY SHOREY: I would argue that candidates overall, not necessarily a gender thing, are being more real. And I would argue that that's something based on social media, OK? You know, people - the more authentic you are on social media, the more followers you have, right?

KURTZLEBEN: That's Missy Shorey, executive director of Maggie's List, a group that promotes conservative women candidates.

SHOREY: If you are just a canned candidate, where's the personality? Where's the belief? Where's the passion? Showing your tattoos, I don't know. Have you been to a waterpark? Everyone's got one.

KURTZLEBEN: Back at the rally in Kentucky, Navy veteran Gregory Tucker (ph), a registered Independent, says he'll support McGrath. Her military service is a factor for him, but so is President Trump's Vietnam draft deferment.

GREGORY TUCKER: Well, my shirt says all gave some, some gave all - one had bone spurs. Veterans Against Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: Like so many other House races this year, this one isn't just about the candidates who are in it. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.