Since announcing her 2020 run, Elizabeth Warren has dispensed three major policy proposals, held 30 campaign events and visited nearly a dozen states.
Since announcing his 2020 run, Beto O’Rourke has made one visit to Iowa, where he vaguely outlined his positions, including from atop a cafe counter.
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Guess who’s getting the star treatment.
The breathless, sweeps-like cable television coverage that greeted the former Texas congressman’s first campaign events stunned and frustrated many Democratic operatives — particularly women — who viewed it as an example of the double standard at work in the historically diverse presidential field.
To them, O’Rourke, a white, male candidate had already been ordained the next sensation, his entry into the race greased by live television shots and O’Rourke-centric panels.
And that was after the national press swarmed him in El Paso during a recent Donald Trump appearance there, after O’Rourke graced the latest Vanity Fair cover, and after Oprah Winfrey, who had her choice of accomplished women candidates to feature on her program, instead zeroed in on the white guy from Texas.
“I feel like the media is always captivated by the person they seem to think is a phenom: Bernie. Trump. Beto. But they always seem to be white men who are phenoms. In a year where we have more choices than ever, more women and more persons of color than ever, none of them seem to be deemed a phenom,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant.
“It’s a replay of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. Instead, it’s Beto O’Rourke in the Bernie Sanders role, to the detriment of every woman running. Not one woman got that kind of coverage. Not one. Not Kamala. Not Kirsten. Not Elizabeth Warren. Not Amy Klobuchar in a blizzard.”
“So what have we learned?” Marsh continued. “Nothing.”
While the 2018 midterm elections set the stage for women making historic gains in Congress — and last month marked another groundbreaking moment when five women officeholders joined the presidential race — no woman on the Democratic side received the kind of wall-to-wall coverage O’Rourke received.
And unlike O’Rourke, who rocketed to stardom last year as he raised a record-breaking $80 million in his unexpectedly close defeat to Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, all of them had won their last election.
“I fully appreciate that he can espouse progressive values as a Democrat, that’s a benefit for the Democratic field. I don’t welcome being fed the retro candidacy,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist and onetime Hillary Clinton adviser. “There’s a romanticizing of him. It’s the artful Vanity Fair cover — but in reality he was in Keokuk, Iowa in a coffee shop. The coffee shop had more reporters in it than Iowans. That’s the product of romanticizing.”
Frustrations over the hyper-coverage of O’Rourke began to build on the eve of his campaign rollout, when Vanity Fair published its April edition online featuring photos taken by the renowned Annie Leibovitz. On the cover stood O’Rourke in blue jeans on a dusty Texas road with a headline declaring: “Beto’s Choice: I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
His comments, which to some Democrats carried the scent of white male privilege, set fire to a whole different set of frustrations.
“A woman could never say ‘I was born to do this.’ But you know what? I think that some women were and it pains me that a woman couldn’t get away with saying that,” Sefl said.
Other female Democratic operatives questioned whether the women candidates could have gotten away with some of the comments O’Rourke made Thursday about his parenting style, or taken the kind of well-publicized, sans-family road trip he took earlier this year.
“I actually really like Beto, but all you have to do is put his quotes into the mouth of a hypothetical woman candidate: she ‘sometimes’ takes care of her kids, she was ‘born for this’, her speech was just ‘amazing, every word pulled out of me’ to know that women would not be the object of adoration,” said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and former senior communications staffer on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Each candidate, of course, has had his or her moment in the sun. All of the top Democratic contenders have taken turns appearing on late night talk shows or CNN town halls. Harris announced her candidacy on “Good Morning America,” and cable news channels carried live her subsequent Oakland, Calif. rally, which drew some 20,000 people.
But Warren, for example, was initially greeted in Iowa by crowds that stretched for several blocks in Des Moines yet her visit wasn’t carried live as some outlets carried O’Rourke’s on Thursday.
Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake argued that it wasn’t just O’Rourke who was getting special treatment — she says there’s a broader gender imbalance at play. When it comes to substance, she said the women running have fielded more questions on their records and have received the brunt of negative stories to date.
Klobuchar has been hit with tough stories about her treatment of staff while Gillibrand has faced questions about the handling of a sexual harassment complaint in her office. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been sharply scrutinized for her position on Syria and her comments about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And Warren has been besieged by stories about her past claims of having Native American heritage.
“I think if you look at the pattern, there is a real distinction between the way men were covered and the way the women were covered. There’s a huge double standard,” Lake said. “With women, many, many more negatives were raised and the men were treated like the second coming. I’m surprised that this is continuing in 2019, after the year of the woman.”
The best-known male candidates haven’t exactly had a free pass. Bernie Sanders, an early frontrunner in polls, in January has to contend with allegations of sexual harassment within his 2016 campaign and sharp criticism from former Hillary Clinton staffers. The hefty speaking fees of prospective candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden have been closely examined.
Even so, some Democratic operatives said, women are not only treated differently by the media as a whole, they face an inherent, entrenched sexism from voters.
“They are observed in different ways, they are consumed in different ways,” says Sefl. “We expect them to speak about their roles in different ways.”
That much is true, says McIntosh, who pointed to O’Rourke’s admission in an interview that he struggles to connect, even with his family at times, as the kind of revelation that a woman candidate could not make without being penalized.
“Women can’t take that path and be seen as leaders,” McIntosh said. “My hope is that watching strong men and women candidates run alongside each other in real time is going to help us acknowledge and address some of these double standards.”