(AP) In many election cycles, there’s a snappy shorthand used to describe the type of voters who may help decide the winner. Think soccer moms or security moms. Even NASCAR dads.
And now, the “mama bears.”
These conservative mothers and grandmothers, who in recent years have organized for “parental rights,” including banning discussion of gender identity in schools, have been classified as extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have also been among the most coveted voters so far in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
Donald Trump praised their work, saying organizations such as Moms for Liberty had taught the liberal left a lesson: “Don’t mess with America’s moms.” Ron DeSantis said “woke” policies had “awakened the most powerful political force in the country: mama bears.” His wife, Casey DeSantis, who launched “Mamas for DeSantis” in leadoff-voting Iowa, said moms and grandmas were the “game changer” in DeSantis’ blowout win for a second term as Florida governor. She predicted they will be again as he runs for president.
“We saw there was a constituency of folks who really wanted a voice, and it wasn’t just Republicans. It was independents, but also a lot of Democrats, too, who didn’t like the direction that the country was going,” Casey DeSantis said during a talk peppered with stories about raising kids in the governor’s mansion, with slime on the ceiling and crayon on wallpaper.
“It’s one thing when your policies come after us as mamas. It’s another thing when your policies come after our children, and that’s when the claws come out.”
These so-called mama bears whom DeSantis and other Republicans are courting are conservative women living across the United States. They are largely white and may belong to official groups such as Moms for Liberty, which says it has 120,000 members nationally, or smaller ones like No Left Turn in Education. Some belong to no group at all.
The groups and their work took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they say parents got a closer look at what their children were being exposed to in public schools. They grew in numbers as Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 and were motivated by what they called government overreach and “woke” policies.
Many fought pandemic-related school shutdowns and mask mandates, pushed to remove diversity, equity and inclusion programs from schools and tried to ban books they viewed as inappropriate, such as ones with LGBTQ content. They have turned up en masse at school board and library board meetings, fighting to ban instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. They have run school board candidates who support their stances.
Geralyn Jones, 31, of Marion, Iowa, said she was not active in politics until the pandemic, when she grew concerned about mask requirements and online schooling for her son, who was in kindergarten. She started asking questions and did not like the answers she was getting.
Jones pulled her two kids out of public school after the district approved a policy that allows transgender students to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender they identify as, without alerting parents,. She now leads the Linn County chapter of Moms for Liberty and said that seeing other moms get involved in politics is empowering.
Jones, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, says he and many other 2024 candidates have reached out to Moms for Liberty — not the other way around — to schedule time to meet with moms. They arrange roundtables for the candidates and always exceed the number of spots the Trump campaign reserves for their group at special events.
“I think we are going to be the most sought-out group or sought-out voice in this next election,” she said.
At the Mamas for DeSantis event, there were games for kids who came with their parents. Attendees held little ones on their laps. The DeSantis campaign also has started selling “Mamas for DeSantis” T-shirts and tote bags.
Opponents say the warm-fuzzy image of a mama bear is a way to mask a cruel, extreme agenda that hurts children.
“Republicans have decided that this is, I think, their golden ticket for the primaries to rile up their base,” said Katie Paris, who runs Red, Wine and Blue, a network of women pushing back on GOP-backed policies such as the anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans efforts of Moms for Liberty.
“Call it ‘parents’ rights,’ call it ‘mama bears,’ and try to make it sound like something that would be common sense. … The reality about ‘parents’ rights’ is that it’s just about the rights of a vocal minority that is trying to carry out an extreme political agenda.”
The mama bear movement is “a contemporary iteration of a trend we’ve seen before” and that dates back decades, said Linda Beail, a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and the author of a book about Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
During the suffrage movement, women pushed baby carriages as they marched for the right to vote. For decades, white Southern women held a powerful role in shoring up segregation and white supremacy, doing jobs such as keeping Black people off lists of eligible voters.
Palin was a game changer in many ways — a youngish, attractive and successful woman who also was quite conservative, Beail said. In the 2010 midterms, Palin used the phrase “mama grizzlies” to describe the conservative women she said would stop Democrats. The narrative played to ideas of rugged individualism, especially appealing in rural areas, and portrayed women as fiercely protective, defending a traditional way of life and motivated by their children.
“It’s hard to argue with,” Beail said. “It’s selflessly protecting your cubs, right?”
In 2024, being a mama bear also may provide a space for conservative women who have not been politically active before or who may have sat out previous elections. If the mama bear narrative is persuasive, Beail said, there are a lot of women who could say, “That’s the spot for me.”
Women are generally more likely to vote for Democrats than men, but Democratic House candidates held only a 50% to 47% advantage among women in last year’s midterms, according to AP VoteCast, a broad survey of the electorate. More men voted for Republicans than Democrats, 54% to 43%.
In 2020, women supported Biden over Trump 55% to 43%, while men supported Trump over Biden 51% to 46%. There was little difference between moms of kids under 18 and women overall in how they voted either year.
Last year, conservatives tried to get hundreds of “parents rights” activists elected to school boards, with help from millions in donations from groups such as the 1776 Project political action committee. One-third of the roughly 50 candidates backed by the 1776 Project PAC won their races. About half the candidates supported by Moms for Liberty were successful.
But the movement was energized after Republican Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 race for Virginia governor, defeating an establishment Democrat who had previously served as governor. He thanked “mama bears” for helping him win.
Casey DeSantis also attributed her husband’s 2022 victory, in part, to the women who overwhelmingly favored him. In his first term, the governor backed legislation prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, a measure that critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He expanded that legislation to cover all grades earlier this year.
DeSantis did win the support of a majority of women as he routed Democrat Charlie Crist. AP VoteCast shows that 57% of women supported DeSantis compared with 42% who supported Crist, though men supported him by even wider margins. While he improved on his margin among both groups since his narrow victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018, his gains were greater among women than among men.
Several gubernatorial candidates who also leaned heavily on parents’ rights fell short in other states, including in Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas.
Red, Wine and Blue is among the groups that have pushed back, using programs such as “Troublemaker Trainings” to educate interested women about how to defeat groups like Moms for Liberty.
Paris, of Red, Wine and Blue, criticized the “parental rights” movement for focusing school district resources on issues such as transgender athletes, which may account for a handful of kids in a state, at the expense of broader issues such as helping millions of kids with reading after pandemic setbacks.
“It’s a political strategy to appeal to the base, and they don’t care who gets harmed in the process,” Paris said.
Jones, the Iowa mom, defended the work that Moms for Liberty and other groups are doing, saying they are getting backlash for simply trying to protect their children. She says the criticism is evidence of the momentum behind their movement and that lawmakers and candidates are talking more about education than she has ever seen — one more sign of how important moms will be in 2024.
“There’s a mom in every household for the most part,” she said, “so that’s a voice that definitely carries a lot of weight.”
AP polling director Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.