South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts is a Vietnam vet and an ex-cop with a wife named Betty Lee. A local Tea Party leader described Knotts, who has held office as a Republican for 16 years, as a “good ol’ boy to a T.” Last June, Knotts became nationally infamous when he told a local reporter that the GOP’s then-candidate for governor, Nikki Haley, an Indian American, was a “fucking raghead.” Speaking on an Internet talk show a few minutes earlier, he had said, “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” Knotts also complained that Haley’s father, who is a Sikh, walked around Lexington wearing a turban and that Haley presented herself as a Methodist “for political reasons.”
Knotts later claimed that his comments had been “intended in jest.” But when I caught up with him just before the November election—which Haley won, becoming the state’s first Indian American governor and first female governor—his complaints, though less coarse, had if anything grown broader in scope. “Let me say this: people going into politics these days are different than the people I always served with. Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings—one Democrat, one Republican, but they had mutual respect for one another,” he told me. “You had to be one of us to get elected. Now we’ve gone so far down the ladder and backwards. We don’t know who it is, or what it is. As long as it’s got an R in front of its name, we vote for it.”
VIDEO: Hanna Rosin and Joshua Green discuss McConnell, Haley, and the tensions within the new Republican Party.
As we talked, Knotts showed me his collection of old boxing gloves, his first handcuffs—engraved with his name, JM KNOTTS—and pictures of himself with Strom Thurmond and with former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell Jr. He introduced me to all the “girls” in his office, and proudly displayed his most prized possession: a police badge from his great-great-uncle, who was shot in the back while walking his beat in 1925. “The good ol’ boys are not going away,” he said, with more pride than conviction, like a cowboy watching bulldozers rip up his beloved prairie. “I’m a good ol’ boy because I look after the good ol’ people of South Carolina, and it’s us who will keep this great state running.”
Time will tell. But for now, at least, Nikki Haley’s victory has put Knotts’s vision on hold. In part, this is because she is “not of European ancestry,” as they say in South Carolina. In part, it’s because she’s a woman. And in part, it’s because she is a self-styled reformer who explicitly took on, and defeated, the good ol’ boys who run the Statehouse. Those last two factors—woman, reformer—seemed somehow linked during an election season that saw a series of female insurgents make national headlines: Haley, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada. And while the last two may have lost their races, it was not before unsettling the Republican establishment in their states. A similar dynamic took place below the radar as well, where nine new conservative women won House seats, from Missouri to Florida. And they all prospered in the wake of Rebel in Chief Sarah Palin, who traveled the country to boost her sorority of “mama grizzlies” to power.
These candidates ran against Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, against bailouts, Big Government, and “socialism.” But easily missed beneath the partisan talking points was the challenge that these women—and the Tea Party, of which they have proved such an unexpectedly crucial component—pose to the Republican establishment. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, made this challenge explicit in her brief bid for House leadership: “It’s important that leadership represents the choice of the people coming into our caucus,” she said, segueing into the kind of appeal one might expect to hear among college feminists: “Whether it’s gender or ethnicity, it’ll be up to members to make that decision.”
Never before have women played so conspicuous—and so disruptive—a role in Republican politics. When female candidates and legislators broke from the party line in the past, they tended to break to the center (for example, Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins), confirming the stereotype of women as kinder, gentler, and more inclined toward consensus-building. And while there has long been a role for women agitators (from Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant in the 1970s to the Independent Women’s Forum, which helped launch Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham), they remained outside the elected party establishment. There was a ripple of gender insurrection during the 1994 Republican revolution, when a handful of female bomb throwers were elected to the House—Idaho’s Helen Chenoweth, California’s Andrea Seastrand, and Washington’s Linda Smith—but none remained in office beyond 2001.
This wave, by contrast, could prove more transformative. In 2008, women voted for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 14 percentage points—56 percent to 42 percent, according to CNN. In 2010, network exit polls showed a one-point split, in some cases in the GOP’s favor—the party’s best result in modern history. Haley, for her part, won a whopping 69 percent of white women voters in South Carolina. And while it is still early, Sarah Palin is seen as a co-front-runner with Mitt Romney—and by far the more conservative choice—for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
In a 1991 article in The New Republic, Chris Matthews, then of the San Francisco Examiner, memorably dubbed the Republicans and Democrats, respectively, the “Daddy Party” (focused on “national defense” and “business affairs”) and the “Mommy Party” (responsible for the nation’s “health, nutrition, and welfare”). It was a frame that seemed only to harden over the years, as the GOP became a refuge for alienated working-class white men. In his 2007 book, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, David Paul Kuhn explains that gradually, “Republicans seemed to own masculinity itself.” Which begs the question: what happens to the Daddy Party when its Mommies start asserting themselves?