When Miller landed in Cleveland for the Republican debate back in August she heard one name over and over—and to her surprise, it wasn't the name of one of the candidates she'd flown to Ohio to see; it was the name of a woman, a candidate whose polling hadn't even qualified her for the main-stage debate.
“When I arrived, the whole town was talking about Carly Fiorina in the ‘happy hour,’ whatever they called it, the lower-tier [debate],” Miller said. The Republican who has represented Michigan in the House for more than a decade missed the earlier debate in favor of the night’s 12-candidate main event. But by the time the second Republican debate rolled around, Fiorina had earned a spot on the main stage and earned Miller’s attention.
Miller, the vice chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that her top two issues in any cycle are the economy and national defense, and, for her, no one on that stage could touch Fiorina. “You know, when she was on that debate stage out in Simi Valley, of course everybody said, ‘Oh, I’m in favor of national defense, strong military.’ Well, of course, we all are. But she started articulating—enumerating really—what we needed to do as far as how many battalions in the Army and what kind of fleets like you see in the Navy and what was necessary,” Miller said.
Miller, now one of Fiorina’s two endorsees on Capitol Hill (both of whom are women), says she is excited to see a woman performing so strongly on the debate stage in a presidential contest. “I think it’s important that women, who are half the population, are represented,” Miller said. But that’s far from the reason she’s endorsing Fiorina.
For Miller, and for many of her female colleagues on Capitol Hill, Fiorina’s gender is “just the icing on the cake.”
Republicans have long dismissed the identity politics that they see as so central to the Democratic Party. Whereas members of the minority talk constantly about Hillary Clinton’s gender, the potential of the first female presidency, and the so-called “women’s issues” that her candidacy brings to the forefront of political discussion, numerous Republican women in Congress dismissed gender as a factor in Fiorina’s candidacy.
Sen. Susan Collins, who is a vehement Jeb Bush supporter, said she is nonetheless excited to see another woman doing so well in the race and is “impressed” by Fiorina, noting that she has “given two outstanding performances in the debate[s].”
Collins pointed out that Fiorina is just one candidate adding to the “amazing diversity” of this year’s Republican field, which features an African-American doctor and two Hispanic senators in addition to “a very capable woman.”
For these women, some of whom have served in Congress for decades, earning their seats long before there was even a women’s bathroom off the House floor, there is a strong sense of concern about tokenism. Blackburn, who noted that she has known Fiorina for years and praised the CEO for “kicking up some dust” in the crowded 2016 field, has not yet made an endorsement in the race. “You know, for any of us who are females working in elective office … I think we want to make certain that it’s not gender; it’s the person who is the most qualified,” she said.