It’s a steep hill to climb for women running for state office

Why a record number of women candidates still may not translate to victories



From left to right:  Michelle Lujan Grisham, running for governor of New Mexico,  Gretchen Whitmer, running for governor of Michigan and Sharon Fairley, running for attorney general in Illinois. / Gretchen Whitmer for Governor / Sharon Fairley for attorney general

Kim Olson, the Democratic candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner, has been driving across the Lone Star State for the past year, spreading the message about the importance of farming and handing out wildflower seeds.

“Some candidates have push cards or business cards, I don’t have any of that. I just have my seed packet and it has all my information printed on it,” said Olson, a farmer, Iraqi war veteran and retired Air Force colonel from the small city of Mineral Wells about 80 miles west of Dallas. “They are Texas native wildflowers, because I’m a beekeeper and my tag line is ‘Wild for agriculture.’”

Olson, 60, is part of a women’s movement that in the past year has harnessed the power of female protesters angered by the 2016 presidential election and transformed it into political ambition up and down ballots nationwide.

Already nearly 500 women have shown interest in running for Congress in this year’s midterm elections, twice as many as compared with the same time in 2016, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. More women have raised their hand to run for governor in 2018 than in the past seven years combined, and scores of women plan to run for attorneys general, legislative seats and more.

The first glimpse of this “pink wave” of political activism took place in November during Virginia’s elections, when female candidates set new records and came one vote short of balancing the scale of Democrats vs. Republicans in the House of Delegates for the first time in 17 years.

Now, this month kicks off the 2018 election season, with Texas and Illinois primaries, plus more than a dozen filing deadlines when candidates must officially declare if they are running. The indications that this year will have record numbers of female candidates has many wondering if 2018 could be a repeat of 1992, “the year of the woman,” when more women ran for Congress than ever before and the number of female senators tripled. This time, though, the revolution could extend all the way down the ballot.

“We’re celebrating as well, thrilled to see women candidate numbers that are almost guaranteed to break records at every level,” CAWP scholar Kelly Dittmar wrote in a report titled, “‘Pink Wave’: A Note of Caution” released in late January. “The gain in women’s presence among the pool of likely candidates is notable, but may also be surprisingly low to many reading about a new ‘year of the woman.’”

According to the report, more women are running in 2018, but they are still less than a quarter of likely congressional candidates. Experts such as Dittmar warn that political parties, male incumbencies and higher scrutiny of women’s qualifications could act as a sea wall that prevents women from making it far enough to reach new political shores.

And women still have a long way to go before political offices reflect the U.S. population. Women currently represent just 25.3 percent of state legislators, 22.8 percent of statewide elected executives and 19.8 percent of Congress.

But women’s success in politics might not be all about winning this year, said Olson, who will face the Republican nominee in November because she's unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. She said the elections might be as much about planting seeds that will one day grow and fill the gender gaps in the halls of Congress, the governors’ mansions and the statehouses all across the country. 

“I know I’m going to win, but if I don’t, I hope to at least pave the way for the next women who run,” said Olson, who has handed out more than 15,000 wildflower seed packets since she announced her candidacy in February 2017. “And if I can do that, I win every day on the campaign trail.”

A long climb

Women have been elected to office since before they could vote.

In 1892, Laura J. Eisenhuth was the first woman in the U.S. to win state office when she was elected as North Dakota’s state superintendent of public instruction, the only statewide office open to women there until 1920, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Women nationally didn’t win the right to vote until 1920, though Wyoming gave women suffrage in the territory as early as 1869 and some other states followed suit.

Since Eisenhuth, 84 women have served in 21 states as state superintendent of public instruction, also known as superintendent of schools. This position is one of the top four statewide offices held by women between 1893 and 2017, according to CAWP data.

Secretary of state is at the top with 127 women, followed by treasurer with 94 and lieutenant governor with 87. By comparison, only 39 women have been governor.

A Center for Public Integrity analysis of CAWP data shows about 186 women have already raised their hand to run for the state executive branch this election cycle compared with 174 in all of 2014 and 159 in 2010.

But unlike the past, many of those candidates are focused on aiming for states’ chief executive office, skipping the usual stepping stones. A total of 79 women candidates plan to run for governor in 34 states in 2018, CAWP data show, compared with 31 candidates in 2014 and 27 in 2010.

By contrast, only 16 women have so far said they will run for secretary of state this year compared with 21 in each of the past two comparable elections. And at the end of February, there were only 29 potential female lieutenant governor candidates, about two-thirds of the number of women who ran for the seat in each of the past two major midterm elections.

A hard race to the top

Texas is a prime example of how even if women pave the way, the governor’s office continues to be a hard place for women to break into.

In 1924, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, a Texas Democrat, was one of the first two women elected governor in the nation. According to historical archives at the University of Texas in Austin, Ferguson was a stand-in for her husband, who had been impeached. Her first stint as chief executive ended in 1927, but she was elected to a second term in 1932.

This year, Texas has two women on the ballot running for governor, Democrat Lupe Valdez and Republican Barbara Krueger, but neither have received much support from their parties and are not expected to make it past the primaries on March 6. A third, Democrat Demetria Smith, is running as a write-in for the general election after she was rejected from the primary ballot.

Smith, 44, a Houston mortgage banker and community activist, decided to run because she said it was the best way to hold law enforcement officers accountable for deadly shootings involving unarmed suspects.

She was also hoping to become the first African-American female governor in Texas until she was bumped from the primary ballot in January by Texas Democratic Party officials over a bounced check for the filing fee.

Smith said she expected state party leaders to disrupt her campaign based on her last two experiences running for elective office and argued she should have been eligible because the check was accepted before the deadline. 

“My view is totally different from a lot of these candidates: I am an independent Democrat because I am not controlled by the party, I am controlled by the people,” said Smith, who, as of last week, continued to campaign. “Parties are in place to control democracy. They are in place to control elections and control the candidates that they want voters to vote for.” 

Democratic Party officials did not respond to requests for comment about Smith’s status.

Kira Sanbonmatsu, senior scholar at the CAWP, said convincing party leaders and donors that female candidates are viable is one of the main challenges women face.

“Sometimes you find that state party leaders will coalesce early on around certain candidates, so sometimes women won’t run because there is already a favorite for a given position,” Sanbonmatsu said. “So sometimes it’s this informal party process that women face.”

Another challenge facing women candidates who make it to the ballot can be party affiliations and sheer numbers. Among all potential congressional candidates this year, 1,063 are Democrats and 657 are Republicans, according to Dittmar’s report. Women make up fewer than 30 percent of those potential Democratic candidates and fewer than 13 percent of Republicans.

That’s better than in 2016, according to CAWP figures, but not enough to change the picture dramatically. Dittmar has written that it’s only when women’s candidacies significantly outpace men’s that women will move closer to gender parity.

In a state like Texas, it has been hard for Democrats to win in recent years. Republicans have held a trifecta — the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Legislature — since 2003. They have held both U.S. Senate seats for even longer.

Incumbents typically have better name recognition and bigger campaign war chests. That makes the equation even more challenging for women — many of whom are Democrats not already in that office — to win this election.

Key Races

In New Mexico and Michigan, though, women candidates for governor are front-runners for the primaries and party favorites.

In New Mexico, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham is leading the polls for the June 5 primary. Grisham currently serves in the U.S. House of Representatives where she leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. On the campaign trail, she is also leading with more than $2.26 million in contributions. This is nearly $800,000 more than her three primary opponents combined, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has raised more than $3 million ahead of the Aug. 7 primary, but, despite being the party favorite and leading the polls, is trailing behind in the money race. Businessman and Democrat Shri Thanedar has nearly $6 million in contributions, mostly from himself, according to his year-end campaign statement. Whitmer previously served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2001 to 2006 and as state senator from 2006 to 2015, where she led her party. 

Also closely watched this year will be the races for state attorneys general. As the chief legal advisers and law enforcement officers for the state government, attorneys general have enormous power and responsibility.

Democrat Sharon Fairley decided to run for attorney general in Illinois after fellow Democrat Lisa Madigan, the woman who has held the seat for the past 15 years, decided to step down. If elected, Fairley would be the first African-American woman to head the Illinois office.

“The state attorney general is the first line of defense against the Trump administration's policies,” Fairley said. “And I want to be in a position to protect the people of Illinois, protect their rights and protect their well-being.”  

Fairley has worked in the criminal justice system for 11 years, most recently in government oversight for the city of Chicago. In February, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Fairley, for her qualifications and her promise to fight public corruption. But she is one of eight Democratic candidates facing off during the March 20 primaries and is lagging behind four male candidates, according to the latest poll.

Trump lessons

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said money has not been a crucial disadvantage for female candidates. She said women often raise the same amount of money as men and are just as likely to win elections.

Incumbencies and lack of political ambition are some of the main barriers creating the gender gap in politics, she said. The 2016 presidential election also showed that partisanship is more important than anything else in electoral politics. She said party identification is so baked into the equation in today’s political climate that only a small sliver of voters can be swayed.

“Democrats hated Trump more than they've hated any previous Republican, and Republicans hated Clinton more than they've hated any previous Democrat,” Lawless said.

Another lesson Lawless said she learned from Trump’s victory is that it’s still acceptable to be what she calls a “card-carrying sexist” and get elected president of the United States. She said a lot of people — including Donald Trump, based on radio interviews he did in the 1990s and early 2000s — assumed that the kinds of things that he’d said and behavior he’d exhibited toward women would have disqualified him.

“There was this general sense that it didn't matter, because we were not, as a country, going to endorse somebody who treated women, and viewed women, and regarded women in the way that Donald Trump did,” Lawless said. “But that didn't pan out.”

Lawless’ sentiments about President Trump are not uncommon especially among Democratic women candidates running in this years’ elections.

Millions of women were so disturbed by his comments towards women, immigrants and other minorities during his campaign that they marched in cities around the world the day after his 2017 inauguration.

Olson was among those marching on the Texas state capital of Austin.

"So there I was marching with hundreds of thousands of women and I thought to myself, 'How can you not do something?’” she said. “‘You have the time, talent, and if you can raise some treasure, you have got to get in the game.'"

It was the same way she’d felt the day after the 2016 election when she was sitting around her breakfast table with four other women and two of them confessed they had voted for Donald Trump.

“I said ‘What? Why?’” she recalled.“They said it wasn’t so much that they liked him, it was just that they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton.”

Olson, who ran three successful campaigns for the Weatherford, Texas, school board, remembers digging her fingernails into her wooden table as she sat there speechless, staring at the two women when they said, “But if you’d been on the ballot, we would’ve voted for you.”

“I said ‘I’m gonna hold you to that,’” Olson recalled. “And I still do.”

This article was co-published with Salon


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