Susan Wild, a 60-year-old lawyer running as a Democrat for an open seat in Pennsylvania, remembers once being reprimanded by a judge for wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress.
She began her campaign, she said, sticking to the issues. But she realized that showing a more personal side made her more confident. One of her best moments in the three-way primary came during a debate where she mentioned her son and, catching sight of him in the front row of the audience, choked up. Before smaller audiences, she said, she has talked about her divorce — hearing her talk about how amicable it is, she said, conveyed to voters that she could build consensus in Congress.
“You know your personal story better then anybody does,” Ms. Wild said. “ You don’t have to start thinking, ‘Am I saying this the right way?’”
Republican women have mostly stuck more to a traditional playbook. Kay Ivey, seeking a full term as governor of Alabama, ran an ad that featured men at a shooting range ticking off her accomplishments, then cut to her firing off a gun.
But some have revealed far more. Representative Martha McSally of Arizona, running for Senate, gave an intensely personal interview to The Wall Street Journal about how she was raped by a high school coach; in it, she described how she began exercising harder so she would stop having her period and would be unable to get pregnant.
Campaign professionals say going personal doesn’t always work; candidates have to tie their stories to issues. Kelda Roys, a Democrat seeking the nomination for governor of Wisconsin, released an ad in which she breast-fed her baby as she discussed a bill she passed as a state legislator banning BPA, a toxic chemical in some plastic baby bottles. By contrast, a Democrat running for governor in Maryland, Krish Vignarajah, breast-fed her infant daughter in an ad with no obvious tie-in to policy. (“I’m a mom, I’m a woman, and I want to be your next governor,” she said.) “It seemed gratuitous,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican-turned-independent consultant. Ms. Vignarajah lost the primary.