O’Donnell starts pulling up examples of women who haven’t had it easy. “You think about Hillary. You know she had to come out there very tough. I don’t know her personally—is there a softer side, who knows?” she says. “But then you see someone like Sarah Palin, who comes up carrying her baby on her hip, giving speeches with her family there. She’s not hiding her maternal side. She’s not hiding her Mama Grizzly side, and is the country ready for that?” O’Donnell’s point: Hillary Clinton ran as a woman, but Palin ran as a mom—and that role is what conservative women relate to so strongly. “Can the country see that a mother is very much a leader?” she asks. “The fact that you’re a good mother almost in and of itself qualifies you . . . There is something very profound in that observation—that there’s a difference between female candidates and mother candidates.”
After our talk, I ask if we can snap a picture together. She frets that she’s not wearing any makeup because it was hard to wake up early that morning. Shedding the coat briefly, she exclaims, “It is cold!” and shrugs it back on, but poses anyway.
For the women who supported her, O’Donnell’s candidacy meant more than a seat in the Senate. At O’Donnell’s final rally in October 2010, before she lost the election by 16 points, I met Brenda Brown, a Walmart manager from Laurel, Delaware, and mother of four. Clutching a U.S. flag, Brown acknowledged she knew that O’Donnell couldn’t win. “That’s not going to discourage me. I’m going to vote my conscience and my principles,” she said. “This is a chance for me to stand up and voice what I believe.”
I ask O’Donnell if we’ll see a woman in the White House in 2012. “The more we run, the more we help pave the way for the next woman,” she says, adding that her new political action committee is designed to help inexperienced candidates if they “feel the stir in their heart to run for office” in primaries against establishment Republicans. “[If] the local party won’t return their call because they don’t want these troublemakers in the trenches running for office,” she says, “I want my PAC to return their call.”
One woman who has paved the way for other female candidates is Sarah Palin. She’s a lot easier to track down than O’Donnell because Palin is signing her latest book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, in 16 cities around the country. At this point in November, most of the national press corps is en route to Des Moines, a stop on the Palin book tour that stokes speculation about her intentions for 2012. But I choose to catch up with her in Nebraska because I figure there will be less competition for good material, and because my in-laws live nearby; there I can score my favorite Thanksgiving leftover—Mary Barker’s corn casserole.
I should feel out of place in Nebraska. After all, I grew up in California, graduated from UC Berkeley, live in D.C. now and have a full-time job in what Palin likes to call the “lamestream media.” But after traveling so much in 2007 and 2008 as the presidential campaign reporter for the Washington Times, I fell in love with the Midwest; I enjoy the starkness of its landscape and the genuineness of its people. I’ve long believed that my in-laws—both conservative—offer more insight into the national mood than any poll, so whenever I can, I ask them about current events to take their political temperature.
After the kind of heavy sleep that follows multiple helpings of Thanksgiving leftovers, I set out from my in-laws’ house when it is still dark, driving two hours to Norfolk, population 24,210, where a welcoming billboard reads JESUS, I TRUST IN YOU. The event officially starts at 11 AM, and I figure most people will get there by 8 or 9. I plan to arrive at 7, thinking that will give me plenty of alone time to caffeinate myself.