In many election cycles, there is a quick shortcut used to describe the type of voters who can help decide the winner. Think soccer moms or security moms. Even the NASCAR daddies.
And now, the “mother bears”.
These conservative mothers and grandmothers, who in recent years have organized for “parental rights,” including banning discussions of gender identity in schools, have been classified as extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They were also 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 taught the liberal a lesson: “Don’t mess with American moms.” Ron DeSantis said the “woke” policies had “awakened the most powerful political force in the country: the bear mamas.” His wife, Casey DeSantis, who started “Mamas for DeSantis” in Iowa, said mothers and grandmothers were a “game changer” in DeSantis’ resounding victory for a second term as governor of Florida. She predicted they will be again as he runs for president.
“We saw there was a constituency of people who really wanted a voice, and it wasn’t just Republicans. It was independents, but also a lot of Democrats, who didn’t like the direction the country was going,” Casey DeSantis said during a story-strewn conference about raising children in the governor’s mansion, with mud on the ceiling and crayon on the wallpaper.
“It’s one thing when your politicians go after us as moms. It’s something else when your politicians go after our children, and that’s where the claws come out.
These so-called bear moms that DeSantis and other Republicans are courting are conservative women living across the United States. They are largely white and may belong to formal groups like Moms for Liberty, which has 120,000 members nationwide, or smaller groups like No Left Turn in Education. Some do not belong to any group.
The groups and their work took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they say parents took a closer look at what their children were exposed to in public schools. They grew in number when Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 and were driven by what they called government overreach and “wake-up” policies.
Many fought pandemic-related school closures and mask mandates, pushed to scrap schools’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and tried to ban books they considered inappropriate, such as those with LGBTQ content. They showed up in droves at school board and library board meetings, fighting to ban teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation. They have presented candidates to school boards who support their positions.
Geralyn Jones, 31, of Marion, Iowa, said she was not active in politics until the pandemic, when she worried about mask requirements and online schooling for her son, who was in kindergarten. She started asking questions and didn’t like the answers she was getting.
Jones pulled her two children from public school after the district approved a policy that allows transgender students to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender they identify with, without alerting parents. She now leads the Linn County chapter of Moms for Liberty and said 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 reached out to Moms for Liberty — not the other way around — to schedule time to meet with moms. They hold candidate roundtables and always exceed the number of seats the Trump campaign reserves for their group at special events.
“I think we’re going to be the most wanted group or voice in this next election,” she said.
At the Mamas for DeSantis event, there were games for kids who came with their parents. The participants held the little ones on their laps. The DeSantis campaign also began 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 and extreme program that hurts children.
“Republicans have decided this is, I think, their golden ticket to the primaries to piss off their base,” said Katie Paris, who runs Red, Wine and Blue, a network of women who push back against GOP-backed policies such as Moms for Liberty’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans efforts.
“Call it ‘parents’ rights,’ call it ‘mama bear,’ and try to make it sound like common sense. … The reality of ‘parents’ rights’ is that it’s just the rights of a vocal minority trying to carry out an extreme political agenda.”
The Mama Bear movement is “a contemporary iteration of a trend we’ve seen before” that dates back decades, said Linda Beail, a Point Loma Nazarene University professor and author of a book on 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
During the suffrage movement, women pushed prams as they marched for the right to vote. For decades, white women in the South have played an important role in entrenching segregation and white supremacy, doing tasks such as excluding black people from the rolls of eligible voters.
Palin was a game-changer in many ways — a young, attractive, successful woman who was also quite conservative, Beail said. Midway through 2010, Palin used the phrase “mama grizzlies” to describe conservative women she believed would stop Democrats. The narrative played on ideas of wild individualism, particularly appealing in rural areas, and portrayed women as fiercely protective, upholding a traditional way of life and driven by their children.
“It’s hard to argue,” Beail said. “That’s selflessly protecting your little ones, isn’t it?”
In 2024, being a mother bear can also provide space for conservative women who have not been politically active before or who may have been absent from previous elections. If Mama Bear’s narrative is compelling, Beail said, there are plenty of women out there who might say, “This is the place for me.”
Women are generally more likely to vote for Democrats than men, but Democratic House candidates only had a 50% to 47% advantage among women halfway through last year, according to AP VoteCast, a broad survey of the electorate. More men voted for Republicans than Democrats, 54% versus 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 mothers of children under 18 and women in general in how they voted each year.
Last year, the Tories tried to elect hundreds of “parents’ rights” activists to school boards, with the help of millions in donations from groups such as the 1776 Project Political Action Committee. A third of the roughly 50 candidates backed by the 1776 Project PAC won their races. About half of the applicants supported by Moms for Liberty were successful.
But the movement was energized after Republican Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 race for governor of Virginia, beating an establishment Democrat who had previously served as governor. He thanked the “mother bears” for helping him win.
Casey DeSantis also credited her husband’s 2022 victory, in part, to the women who overwhelmingly favored him. During his first term, the governor supported legislation banning the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, a measure that critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It expanded that legislation to cover all ranks earlier this year.
DeSantis won the support of a majority of women by defeating Democrat Charlie Crist. AP VoteCast shows 57% of women backed DeSantis compared to 42% who backed Crist, though men backed him by even wider margins. While he has improved his margin in both groups since his narrow victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018, his gains have been larger among women than among men.
Several gubernatorial candidates who have also leaned heavily on parental rights have failed in other states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas.
Red, Wine and Blue are among the groups that have pushed back, using programs such as “Troublemaker Trainings” to educate interested women on 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, who may represent a handful of children in a state, at the expense of larger issues such as helping millions of children read after pandemic setbacks.
“It’s a political strategy to appeal to the grassroots, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process,” Paris said.
Jones, the Iowa mother, defended the work that Moms for Liberty and other groups do, saying they were getting backlash for simply trying to protect their children. She says the criticism is proof of the momentum behind their movement and that lawmakers and candidates are talking more about education than she’s ever seen — yet another sign of the importance of moms in 2024.
“There’s a mother 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.