California State Senate candidate Sandra Fluke (LAW ’12) lost her race in the state’s 26th District to fellow Democrat and longtime area resident Ben Allen on Tuesday.
Fluke received 39 percent of the vote in the runoff election, which pitted the two Democrats against each other as part of California’s “jungle primary” rules, in which the top two finishers in the primary election, regardless of party, face off in the general election. Her large margin of defeat comes in stark contrast to her close second-place finish in the June primary and her fundraising advantage over Allen throughout the campaign.
Fluke gained national recognition after testifying in 2012 in front of Congress about the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate, urging Georgetown University to cover the co-pay for female students’ contraceptives, which it did not do until August 2012. Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” in response to her testimony, drawing widespread criticism for his comments.
Fluke continued to stand up for women’s rights after the incident, and spoke on the role of women at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She originally contemplated a run for the retiring Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
H*yas for Choice President Abby Grace (SFS ’16) attributed Fluke’s candidacy and primary success to the positive national attention she received for standing up for women’s needs.
“The positive media reaction afterward, reporting her and using that as a larger platform to call out not only Rush Limbaugh but other Republican commentators increased her name ID to where she was even able to run in the first place,” Grace said.
Jenna Galper (COL ’17), who interned on Fluke’s campaign over the summer, said the atmosphere of Fluke’s campaign was primarily positive.
“I think people were really optimistic and very hopeful. I mean, she did have a lot of momentum behind her,” Galper said. “So I think, at least from the perspective I got, that people were expecting her not only to not lose by a large margin but actually to win.”
Despite the positive attention, the race proved to be difficult for the 33-year-old Fluke, facing Allen, 36, who already served on the Board of Education in the 26th District, a coastal district encompassing affluent areas like Santa Monica, Palos Verdes, Manhattan Beach, Brentwood and Beverly Hills, after redistricting. Fluke, who received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, is a Pennsylvania native. She moved to West Hollywood with her husband in 2012.
Government Department Chair and American government professor Michael Bailey attributed Fluke’s loss to her reputation as being solely a “women’s issues” candidate.
“I would say being a young woman whose signature issue is women’s issues, then the politics of it seem to me that she would really have to work to figure out a way to have something else,” Bailey said. “It’s not that ‘She’s a young woman, so I’m voting against her,’ but if she were a young man who had the same policy platform, she probably wouldn’t have had to worry about that same kind of pigeonholing.”
Grace noted that Fluke’s attempts to address other issues contributed to the perception of her as an unqualified candidate.
“A lot of times it’s easy when you see young ambitious men running for office to say they’re go-getters, they’re making a name for themselves. But when women perceive the same actions, a lot of times they’re perceived as overly efficient, unqualified, unprepared,” Grace said. “She was forced to talk about other issues like energy and the environment, which are certainly important issues, but I think that perhaps that moved her a bit out of her comfort zone.”
Since Fluke’s campaign was more associated with national politics than her opponent’s, Bailey hypothesized that the dissatisfaction with Democrats in Congress may have diffused into the race.
“The general story is this anti-Democratic movement that emerged when things got coupled up with the national politics,” Bailey said.
Grace felt confident that Fluke would run again in the future.
“I definitely think that she’ll run again in her life. There’s a lot to be said for lessons that you learn on the first campaign trail. She still has a good bit of time, and she is very passionate about political activism in general, and if you really have that drive, one setback isn’t going to knock you down,” Grace said.
“It’s always disappointing to see young women lose running for office. But she’s still young, and I think she has a promising career ahead of her,” she said.
Fluke’s campaign could not be reached for comment.