New Mexico’s Debra Haaland could be the first Native American woman in Congress. Kristi Noem is a step closer to being the first woman to serve as South Dakota’s governor. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also in New Mexico, could become the first Democratic Latina governor in the country. At 28, Abby Finkenauer of Iowa might be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
If this is really the “Year of the Woman 2.0,” Tuesday’s primaries were a good sign. In the eight states that held contests, there were 122 women on the ballot for federal and statewide executive offices — more than on any other primary day this year — and female candidates were successful in 56 races (another 27, all in California, were still too close to call Wednesday afternoon).
Overall, we’re nearly halfway through the primary season — almost half of the 772 women running for federal office or statewide positions this year have faced their first contests, in 21 states — and more women have won their primaries than lost.
Women’s success is driven primarily by Democrats, who make up about 70 percent of these female candidates and have won more than half their primaries so far. Republican women make up just 30 percent of female candidates, but they’re not trailing too far behind Democratic women — they’ve been successful in 44 percent of their primaries.
So women are not only running in record numbers this cycle, they’re winning — at least, they’re winning their parties’ nominations. The true contests will come in November, and even then women’s share of political representation won’t change all that much. Women make up less than 25 percent of congressional candidates this year, a share that’s remained relatively steady for the last two decades — as has the share of women who get elected.
“Since the 1980s, the sex of the candidate has not mattered in terms of vote totals, fundraising or election outcomes,” explained Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “The biggest impediment is that women are less likely to run.”
So it matters that women have turned out to run in droves this year — 469 for U.S House, 53 for U.S. Senate and 73 for governor— but so have men.
“I care a lot more about where these women are and what the general election looks like,” Lawless added. “In the more competitive districts, how many of those are races where a woman was victorious?”
Women were successful in several highly competitive U.S. House districts this week. Democrat Mikie Sherrill won in New Jersey's 11th, a Republican-held seat that will be closely contested in the fall. In Iowa’s 3rd, Cindy Axne, a community activist, will face Republican incumbent David Young in a district that leans only slightly Republican. And Yvette Herrell, a Republican, edged out three men to secure a spot vying for New Mexico’s 2nd, another competitive seat.
Female candidates on both sides of the aisle are seeing the most success in House races. Republican women also picked up their first two gubernatorial nominations of 2018 on Tuesday: Kay Ivey in Alabama and Kim Reynolds in Iowa. (Both women are incumbents but were appointed to their seats and have not yet faced elections.) Michelle Lujan Grisham secured the Democratic spot for governor in New Mexico, but in Iowa and Alabama, Democratic voters passed over female candidates for white men.
Last week’s primaries saw huge successes for women of color, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Linda Coleman and DD Adams in North Carolina, and this Tuesday’s contests were no different.
Overall, women of color have been more successful than white women so far, though they’re running in far fewer races. Asian and Pacific Islander women have had the most success, winning two-thirds of their primaries, followed by Hispanic women at 53 percent. Black women and white women have each won about half their primary contests.
In a year with so many women running, there are bound to be some contests where one woman’s gain is another’s loss: In Alabama on Tuesday, for example, white women were chosen over black women candidates in the Democratic primaries for the U.S. House in the 2nd and 3rd districts.
The bottom line: With less than six months to go until the midterm elections, female candidates appear to be on track — if not exceeding expectations — and they are likely to pick up a handful of seats in Congress and several state-level executive positions, too.
Women are still a long way from equal representation, but those gains are important, said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“If you set it up as an avalanche or a wave or a tsunami and then in November we don't see a doubling of women in Congress, I don't want people to say that women failed,” she said.
Cover image: New Mexico's Debra Haaland is trying to become the first Native American woman to serve in the House of Representatives and is now the Democratic nominee in her Albuquerque district. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)