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February is Women's History Month!

What the Koch Network's endorsement of Nikki Haley could mean for women in politics

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the Republican debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last night, the knives were out for Nikki Haley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Nikki, if you can't tell the difference between where Israel is and the U.S. is on a map, I can have my 3-year-old son show you the difference.

RON DESANTIS: Her donors, these Wall Street liberal donors - they make money in China. They are not going to let her be tough on China, and she will cave.

RAMASWAMY: At the first debate, she said that only a woman can get this job done. That's what she said.

NIKKI HALEY: I love all the attention, fellows. Thank you for that.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Haley is getting a lot of the attention because she is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to Donald Trump, who is leading the Republican field by leaps and bounds. One of the reasons she is seen as an alternative is because the Koch network endorsed her recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The political network founded by the billionaire Koch family has endorsed Nikki Haley.

KATE BOLDUAN: Americans for Prosperity Action, the political arm of Koch's network, are out with a new ad in support of the former UN ambassador.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Americans for Prosperity made the endorsement, calling Haley the best Republican candidate to, quote, "turn the page on the current political era."

KELLY: That endorsement comes with a lot of money in what is sure to be a multibillion-dollar election. And that is notable because women have historically lagged behind men in fundraising. That gap, the reasons behind it and what it means for women's political viability is the work of Kira Sanbonmatsu. She's a political scientist at Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. When we spoke recently, she took me through some of the reasons why this has been a problem and what the support of an organization like the Koch network could mean for Nikki Haley.

KIRA SANBONMATSU: Financial support's so important. It helps put you on the map as a candidate. Historically, we know that it's been harder for women to raise money. They didn't always have the financial backing. They weren't the incumbents. People know that men can win office. They're automatically seen as viable. Sometimes this can be harder for women to establish their viability for that reason. We haven't had a woman president. We didn't have a lot of women in Congress or serving as governors. And it took women forming their own organizations and donor networks such as EMILY's List, VIEW PAC, Higher Heights for America to establish networks, funding streams and women's political action committees. And those efforts have been successful, powering a record number of women in Congress today.

KELLY: What kind of disparity are we talking? Can we put numbers on this?

SANBONMATSU: One thing that we're seeing at the state level - we just released a report called "The Donor Gap." And what we're seeing there is that although women can raise as much as men for their races, women are still underrepresented as donors. Men are out-giving women 2 to 1 when you look at the money raised for state elections. So women's voices aren't heard to the same extent as men's in terms of political contributions. And then at the candidate level, if you're not an incumbent, it's harder to raise money, and women are less likely to be the incumbents.

KELLY: You nodded to some of the groups that are dedicated to changing this, to lifting up female candidates - groups like EMILY's List leading the charge. Are we able to measure how much of a difference they make in trying to level the playing field or at least start to?

SANBONMATSU: Those organizations have been really critical to helping fuel women's campaigns. And what they figured out is women need early money because to be seen as a credible candidate, you need to raise money. And then once you're able to raise money, you're seen as a credible candidate. And so there's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy there. And so these funding streams have been really significant.

KELLY: And how much has it changed? I'm thinking back to 1992. I was in college. It was the alleged year of the woman. Thirty years on - God help us - 30 years on since I was in college, how much has the landscape shifted?

SANBONMATSU: Oh, it's shifted a lot. These organizations have been really important, and women candidates can be really successful financially. You know, we can think of races where women are out-raising men, and we are seeing a record number of women in Congress. And I think that the presidential race is tougher. It's - they're more expensive races, and we have yet to elect a woman president.

KELLY: Yeah. So let's focus on Nikki Haley, the female candidate who has just pulled in the funding from the Koch network. What kind of impact do you imagine that having on her profile, on her message, on her ability to win votes?

SANBONMATSU: This endorsement is already having an impact. You see that it's attracting additional financial support. We know that she's gaining in terms of the polls. And what it does is it shows that she's a credible candidate, that she's worthy of further investment. And this has been hard for Republican women. We see many more Democratic women holding office. It was Hillary Clinton who came close to winning the presidential election. We have yet to see the Republican Party nominate a woman for president. So what this signals is that she's a serious candidate, that she should attract more resources. So it's an important development.

KELLY: To the importance of timing, we are five, six weeks out from the Iowa caucus, the first GOP presidential primary for 2024. To what extent is the timing of this endorsement important to Nikki Haley's campaign?

SANBONMATSU: It's an important endorsement. It's late in the game, but on the other hand, no one has voted yet. And so as the Republican field winnows, if she can emerge here in one of these early states, it'll be significant for her.

KELLY: What about some of the other people starting to work on Nikki Haley's behalf? I'm thinking of Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn - just gave $250,000 to Nikki Haley's super PAC. Now, he is a Democratic megadonor. He supports Biden. He's open about that. How unusual is this?

SANBONMATSU: Well, I think we are in some unusual political times. Donald Trump is not a usual candidate, and there is a pro-democracy movement afoot. And so I think that Nikki Haley will take, as she has said, support from all corners. People like to get involved for a number of reasons. They have - they want to win, but they also care who's in office. They want to express their views, and sometimes you get involved because you are opposed to another candidate. So that's what our elections are about, so there can be a variety of motivations.

KELLY: What are you going to be watching for as you try to gauge whether it may, in fact, be possible for Haley?

SANBONMATSU: You know, I think it's important to see whether this endorsement and how much of an effect this endorsement has in attracting additional money. It's this kind of early endorsement that women haven't typically had access to early in presidential campaigns. And so it'll be interesting to watch whether more money follows and more support follows.

KELLY: Kira Sanbonmatsu of Rutgers University and the Center for American Women and Politics. Thank you.

SANBONMATSU: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR XAMA SONG, "EU CHOREI NAS MARGENS DO RIO NEGRO (AO VIVO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.