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Barbara Lee Headshot

When Men Lose in Politics, It's Never Their Fault

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Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary election loss this summer to a little-known Tea Party challenger was a shock. But the reasons given for the loss were not. After the history-making, 12-point loss, the usual rhetoric made the rounds. The takeaway was this: Cantor was the casualty of a bigger battle.

Often, when a woman loses, it's seen as her fault, even if she was the casualty of a bigger battle, like the political climate or -- dare we even say it? -- sexism. When a woman loses, we hear comments on her personality, her personal choices, her hair, her hemlines, her voice. We hear about how she failed voters, her party, all women. Even the smallest slip-ups become huge obstacles.

Regardless of the real reason Cantor lost, the point is less about his particular race and more about how our culture talks about men and losing. As we approach mid-term Congressional elections and gubernatorial elections around the country, it's a timely concept to consider.

That kind of blame game is the political equivalent of telling a male candidate, "It's not you, it's everything else." It puts the fault squarely on the shoulders of someone or something - usually anything - besides the actual candidate. For women, the opposite is true.

Research shows that sexist talk about a woman candidate can hurt her chances at the polls (Remember this 2013 study from Name It. Change It?). And good luck to a woman who isn't particularly "feminine" looking. According to a Dartmouth College study, that can be a stumbling block, too.

When women lose races, it's seen as a personal failing. When high-profile men lose, seemingly omnipotent outside forces are to blame. A sampling of press coverage of losses from Tom Daschle to Scott Brown to Mitt Romney to Eric Cantor helps paint the picture.

Pundits and press opine that Cantor lost because voters are disgusted with Congress. Or the issue of immigration reform threw a wrench into the campaign plan. In 2012, Romney didn't have the important "luck" factor. Brown was a Republican running in a blue state.

In short, the reasons we often see for men blowing it can be categorized this way: It's about policy or party or political landscape, and hardly ever about the person.

To be sure, every race is unique and policies, party, and political landscape all play important roles in the outcome. And not all commentary about men's losses is blind to the crucial role the individual candidate played in the race. But more often than not, the finger-pointing faces outward instead of inward.

A solution? Let's be clear about the challenges women face when running for office and give them due credit for meeting them head on. Let's be outspoken about sexism when we see and hear it. Let's be honest about the role gender still plays in politics, and help level the playing field.

Let's remind ourselves and others that yes, running for office as a woman has its challenges. That shouldn't mean losing a race is somehow always the woman's fault.