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Forget Suits. Show the Tattoo. Female Candidates Are Breaking the Rules.

Candidates like Abby Finkenauer are ditching ads showing them in pantsuits and instead focusing on their personal stories.
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These Ads Reveal How Women Candidates Are Changing Campaigns

Candidates like Abby Finkenauer are ditching ads showing them in pantsuits and instead focusing on their personal stories.

There’s been a record number of women running for office this year. The likelihood, based on what we’ve seen so far, is that we won’t see a huge wave of women winning. But what a lot of people who’ve watched women candidates over the years are looking for is just a shift in the way women are allowed to express themselves as candidates and a shift in the way women can campaign. The traditional advice to female candidates has been, if you want to boil it down, to sort of put a pantsuit on, recite your résumé, remember to smile, keep the kids out of the way. That’s really shifting this year. “And that’s me, MJ Hegar.” This ad for MJ Hegar is probably the most viral ad of the season: “An Air Force combat veteran and a mom.” I think what’s grabbing people is this thumping music, the fact that she’s flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. But what’s really interesting about it is she’s also talking about her kids. You see her playing with her kids, you see her as a young girl — “One of my first memories was of a door, but it was my dad throwing my mom through a glass one.” — this very vulnerable young girl of a mother who’s being abused by her father. And the other thing is, she’s showing a tattoo. That’s really unusual in a campaign ad. “I remember what it was like to come home from school and not be able to get into the house.” What’s striking about this ad from Tammy Baldwin is the way it opens and how very frank and honest she is: “My mother had a drug abuse problem.” You think of her as a little girl, someone who’s probably very vulnerable. That’s not something that women have been typically used to talking about on the campaign trail. “That’s me at the State House fighting for working families like mine.” Past advice has been to hide the children. But even more than that, to hide your vulnerability. This year Abby Finkenauer, in her ads, walks right into prime vulnerability, talking about how she owes student loans. “They said the State House would be too tough for a young lady. Then they said that a girl still paying off her student loans wasn’t tough enough to beat a millionaire for Congress.” “Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by.” Ocasio-Cortez really came out of nowhere. And I think this video is one of the things that got people so excited about her. And if you look at it, she’s really telling an incredibly personal story about what it’s like to live in New York City at this time and how difficult it is. And she’s living her day-to-day life. So she gets up in the morning and she’s in this cramped bathroom putting on mascara. She’s on a subway platform changing from commuter shoes into her high heels, like so many women commuters like her do. We’re seeing this beyond the ads, too. In an interview with Seth Meyers, Stacey Abrams of Georgia talked about some incredibly personal issues. “My brother who faces mental health challenges and drug addiction challenges.” The truth is, the old way of campaigning didn’t work. Right now, studies show us that when you ask someone to imagine a leader, they’re inclined to draw a picture of a man in a suit. For female candidates, this shift in the way women are allowed to express themselves as candidates and a shift in the way women can campaign, really means ultimately a shift in the way we view our leaders.

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Candidates like Abby Finkenauer are ditching ads showing them in pantsuits and instead focusing on their personal stories.CreditCredit...Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

The guys at the union hall have just swapped out the first keg when Abby Finkenauer, Democratic candidate for Congress, arrives and immediately reveals the kind of vulnerability that campaign consultants have long told women to avoid.

She starts by discussing her $20,000 in student loan debt, then recalls waiting by the phone as a little girl for word that her father would finally get work as a pipefitter. She brags about her baby nephew (“he’s very, very cute”).

At 29, Ms. Finkenauer might worry about seeming inexperienced. But she mentions her two terms as a state legislator almost peripherally. This race, she tells them, is “so dang personal to me.” And the men in workboots and T-shirts nod at the young woman in skinny jeans and a soft pink jacket.

“It’s personal” is the tagline to Ms. Finkenauer’s television ads, and it could serve as the slogan for so many other female candidates — mostly Democratic, but some Republicans — in this year’s midterms, women who are breaking carefully calculated and not always successful rules about how they can and should present themselves.

The surge of women’s activism in the Trump era has produced a record number of women running for office. And after years of being told to put on a suit and recite their résumé — and smile! — female candidates are revealing themselves in more complex ways. They aren’t running as men, but they aren’t exactly running as women in a stereotypical way. They’re running as individuals — something like the voters they are trying to reach.

On the trail, women are mixing discussion of health care and tax policy with intimate stories of debt and divorce, exposing their tattoos and, among African-American candidates, wearing natural hair. In ads, they are breast-feeding and talking about “handsy” men and their fights against gender discrimination.

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a Democrat facing a tough re-election challenge, recounted her mother’s fight with prescription drug abuse in one ad, and hugged constituents who had lost loved ones to opioid abuse in another.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset a powerful incumbent congressman in a New York Democratic primary, put on mascara and changed from commuter shoes to pumps on a subway platform as she narrated a campaign video in the working-class neighborhood she is hoping to represent in Congress.

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Credit...Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, routinely talks about her brother’s struggle with mental illness and her own credit card debt. And Liuba Grechen Shirley, running for Congress on Long Island, not only shows her napping-age children on social media, she also successfully fought the Federal Election Commission to let her use contributions to pay someone to watch them while she campaigns.

“These different women who are running, and the way they’re running, is going to change politics forever,” said Christine K. Jahnke, a longtime consultant to Democratic women. “They’re rewriting the playbook. But we don’t know exactly what the new playbook will look like.”

Studies have long shown that voters hold female candidates to a higher standard. They tend tosupport a male candidate they don’t like as long as they think he’s qualified, and they presume he is — after all, for several centuries, most leaders have looked like him. But women have to prove that they are both qualified and likable.

That can seem like an either-or proposition.

As Hillary Clinton prepared to run for president in 2008, her consultant Mark Penn warned in a memo that the nation wanted a “first father” but was not ready for a “first mama.” Mrs. Clinton ran as the candidate ready to answer that 3 a.m. phone call — opening her up to accusations of being inauthentic when she tried to show her more grandmotherly side in her 2016 campaign.

With so many women running this year, consultants say voters are more willing to accept female candidates as qualified. “The playing field is changing as we’re on it,” said Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker. “Voters are changing with them.”

The old advice, strategists and candidates say, didn’t really work anyway. In focus groups conducted after Mrs. Clinton’s loss in 2016, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to help elect more women, found that voters want to know about a woman’s personal life. If she doesn’t share, they make assumptions about it.

Female candidates still get questions about who is going to take care of their children, and criticism of their clothing or hair or voice. President Trump has routinely singled out women leaders as “wacky,” promiscuous and “low I.Q.”

But women are finding more leeway to run as what the Lee Foundation calls “360 degree candidates,” presenting a range of life experiences to voters.

In an ad Mr. Putnam’s firm produced, M.J. Hegar, a congressional candidate in Texas, narrates her career as an Air Force officer and Air National Guard pilot and her lawsuit that pushed the Pentagon to reverse the ban on women in ground combat. But the ad, which quickly went viral, also recalls how her father abused her mother, and shows her playing with her children while wearing a T-shirt that shows off her tattoo.

In an appearance on Seth Meyers’ late-night television show, Ms. Abrams mentioned the romance novels she wrote while at Yale Law School, and how she learned to shoot a gun as a child growing up in Mississippi.

Ms. Finkenauer’s first campaign video, titled “Tough,” shows her father wringing out sweat from his tool belt at the end of a workday, and her fight as a young Iowa state legislator against the weakening of collective bargaining rights. It has the “I got this” tone of a commercial for stain remover. But, as she pointed out in an interview, “I was wearing a red dress.”

Ms. Finkenauer is running against a two-term incumbent, Representative Rod Blum, in a district with more registered Democrats than Republicans, but which voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.

As she tells voters about her father’s work as a pipefitter, her mother’s career as a school district secretary and her siblings who farm soybeans, she laces in mentions of the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s trade wars and a tax code where “hard work is not rewarded.”

“If I can’t do this and be who I am, I am not supposed to go to Congress and represent the folks who live here,” Ms. Finkenauer said in an interview.

Her speech in the union hall impressed Mark Thomas, 36, a plumber for one of the state’s largest construction firms and the father of two, with a baby on the way. “It was very specific, saying, ‘I come from this background where we didn’t have much, and I’m trying to fix that for you.’” he said. “That appeals to me, she can relate.”

“I don’t know how to do it any other way,” Ms. Finkenauer said in the interview. She often tells audiences a story about going to bed wearing T-shirts of her father’s with pin-size holes in them — she assumed that all little girls wore their dad’s T-shirts instead of pajamas, and that all T-shirts had holes. Only later did she understand the holes were caused by the sparks of his welding fork that burned through his Carhartts.

“These guys have little girls going to bed at night,” she said. “They know I get it; when I go to D.C. I’m going to have them on my mind.”

Younger candidates like Ms. Finkenauer grew up in an oversharing world of social media and reality television. But for older candidates, sharing personal stories with voters can feel like more of a departure.

Susan Wild, a 60-year-old lawyer running as a Democrat for an open seat in Pennsylvania, remembers once being reprimanded by a judge for wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress.

She began her campaign, she said, sticking to the issues. But she realized that showing a more personal side made her more confident. One of her best moments in the three-way primary came during a debate where she mentioned her son and, catching sight of him in the front row of the audience, choked up. Before smaller audiences, she said, she has talked about her divorce — hearing her talk about how amicable it is, she said, conveyed to voters that she could build consensus in Congress.

“You know your personal story better then anybody does,” Ms. Wild said. “ You don’t have to start thinking, ‘Am I saying this the right way?’”

Republican women have mostly stuck more to a traditional playbook. Kay Ivey, seeking a full term as governor of Alabama, ran an ad that featured men at a shooting range ticking off her accomplishments, then cut to her firing off a gun.

But some have revealed far more. Representative Martha McSally of Arizona, running for Senate, gave an intensely personal interview to The Wall Street Journal about how she was raped by a high school coach; in it, she described how she began exercising harder so she would stop having her period and would be unable to get pregnant.

Campaign professionals say going personal doesn’t always work; candidates have to tie their stories to issues. Kelda Roys, a Democrat seeking the nomination for governor of Wisconsin, released an ad in which she breast-fed her baby as she discussed a bill she passed as a state legislator banning BPA, a toxic chemical in some plastic baby bottles. By contrast, a Democrat running for governor in Maryland, Krish Vignarajah, breast-fed her infant daughter in an ad with no obvious tie-in to policy. ("I'm a mom, I'm a woman, and I want to be your next governor," she said.) "It seemed gratuitous,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican-turned-independent consultant. Ms. Vignarajah lost the primary.

Ms. Finkenauer won a four-way primary in Iowa’s First Congressional District with a commanding 67 percent of the vote. But even a compelling personal story may not be enough to clear the hurdles of gerrymandering or running against an incumbent.

Consultants say that candidates may have to shift their approach back to something more traditional in the general election, as they try to convince independent voters rather than mobilize a base.

“The navy suit and pumps are in the closet — until debate day,” said Ms. Jahnke, the consultant.

She has coached hundreds of female candidates at workshops that teach women how to sit, stand, dress and speak while campaigning. “I’ve learned so much from these candidates this year,” she said. She is still advising them to smile, she said. “But with the caveat: ‘Only if you want to.’”

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