Robert Gehrke: Aimee Winder Newton could be the first female to appear on the ballot for governor

Robert Gehrke

It’s kind of fitting that, in the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Aimee Winder Newton could be the first female representing a major party to appear on a ballot for governor in Utah history.

You’ll remember Gov. Olene Walker, became the only woman ever to hold the office after Gov. Mike Leavitt skipped town to join President George W. Bush’s administration in 2003.

Despite having an approval rating around 80%, Walker was bounced at the Republican convention because she wasn’t “conservative enough,” in part because she threatened to veto the state budget if lawmakers didn’t fund her childhood reading program. The nerve!

Winder Newton plans to go to the convention, but also gather signatures, meaning that, unlike Walker who didn’t have that option, she could make it to the Republican primary.

That said, the mountain Winder Newton has to climb to even be a serious contender in what is expected to be a packed field will be daunting and her opponents can make that climb more difficult. As I’ve written with the the other candidates in the race — Spencer Cox and Jeff Burningham — and will do with the others who join, here’s a look at how to beat Winder Newton.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Council Member Aimee Winder Newton is running for governor.

1. Her path is already tricky

Let’s start here: Gender is going to be an issue.

No Republican woman has ever been elected to statewide office. The party has never even nominated a female statewide. Historically, the Republican state convention is stacked against women. In 2016, for example, more than three-fourths of the GOP delegates were men, according to a survey by the Utah Foundation.

Now, with the signature path to the primary, that may be less of an obstacle and the same survey found that 56% of Republican voters are women.

There could be another hurdle, however. Jessica Preece, a Brigham Young University political science professor, and her colleagues recently completed a paper that found that Republican voters tend to favor candidates with masculine traits over feminine ones in intraparty contests — although they focused their study on entry-level, Utah state delegate races.

All of those factors mean Winder Newton will already have a lot to overcome, even before we talk about what elections should be about, stuff like ideas and leadership qualities.

2. Exercise caution!

Politics can be a tough sport and Winder Newton, who has run for county office twice before (including beating my sister in 2018) knows that. So the men in the race don’t have to treat her differently than they would any opponent, but there is risk in going too far.

More than half the electorate is female and there is the potential that those voters could be turned off by a candidate who comes off as dismissive or condescending or bullying. Sure, they might score some points, but there is the potential it could blow up in their faces.

If you don’t believe me, watch the campaign. I promise you will see at least one of the candidates try to “mansplain” and it will not go well.

3. Don’t make her job easier

Right now, Winder Newton is polling at about 1% and she wasn’t included in the recent Salt Lake Chamber poll.

Her first priority is introducing herself to voters, especially to Republicans outside of Salt Lake County. That takes a lot of money and, unlike Burningham who has millions of his own money, Winder Newton is going to have to spend a lot of time fundraising.

Like I suggested with Burningham, it would be counter-productive for the big-name candidates to punch down and elevate her profile by engaging. Run your own race, suck as much oxygen and money out of the room as possible and make it that much harder for Winder Newton to get traction.

4. When you speak of her, speak well

Until the polls show her climbing to within striking distance, there is no downside for the front-runners — when they do mention her (see above) — to be anything but positive. Welcome her to the race, applaud the value of having different perspectives, follow her lead on some issues.

Then suggest she would be a great lieutenant governor, maybe even put her on a short list for the spot. It does two things: It shows an appreciation of gender diversity in the race and on the ticket and, from an optics standpoint, creates separation between the top-tier and second-tier candidates.

Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, that sounds pretty condescending. Didn’t you say not to do that?”

It is and I did. But by doing it in the context of praising her record and qualifications and suggesting she would be a good No. 2, it can be done in a way that doesn’t necessarily *appear* condescending.

Plus, it certainly helps that she really would be a good pick, especially for someone like Cox, who doesn’t need help in rural Utah but could benefit by having someone from Salt Lake County on the ticket.