Just as the women’s marches and #MeToo helped define 2017, the surging numbers of female candidates have defined the midterm races now underway. Yet for all that, the November elections may not produce a similar surge in the number of women in Congress.
More than half the female candidates for House and Senate seats are challenging incumbents, who historically almost always win; there were far more wide-open races in 1992’s so-called Year of the Woman, which doubled the number of women in Congress. A large percentage of the women now running for open seats are in districts that favor the other party. And many female candidates are clustered in the same districts, meaning many will be eliminated in this spring and summer’s primaries.
In Idaho, two women seek the U.S. House seat of outgoing Rep. Raul Labrador, who is running for governor. Christy Perry is among seven candidates for the job in the Republican primary, while Christina McNeil is in a three-way Democratic race. No women filed to run for Idaho's other House seat this year.
Last Tuesday’s primary elections in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina help illustrate the steep path. Two women ran for the Senate, both were long shots, and both lost. In House races, 27 women won — more than half. But 16 will challenge incumbents in November, 15 of them in districts firmly favoring their opponents.
The increase in the number of female candidates tilts largely toward Democrats — at the start of this year, the number of Democratic women seeking House seats was up 146 percent from the same point in 2016; among Republicans, it was up 35 percent. And many of the women have less experience in government and politics than those who ran for Congress in the past.
“While we are encouraged by the energy and the enthusiasm and the engagement of women, I think we also at the same time have to be cognizant of the fact that many of these women, even when they win their primary, will be running very tough races in November,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“We are not going to see, in one cycle, an end to the underrepresentation of women in American politics that we’ve seen for 250 years,” she said. “The concern is we need this energy and engagement to be here for the long haul. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The race here in Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 5th Congressional District, which includes South Philadelphia and the mostly affluent bedroom communities of Delaware County, shows both the energy of women in the midterms and why this election may not be a repeat of 1992.
Six women are running in the Democratic primary this Tuesday — more than in any other congressional district in the country. The local political news of the past year has increased the urgency among many party officials and voters to elect a woman. The incumbent in the seat, Rep. Patrick Meehan, announced in January that he would not seek re-election after revelations that he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint brought by a former aide. A state legislator who had been considered a front-runner for the seat abandoned his run after former staff members accused him of inappropriate touching and sexual jokes. And a state legislator representing much of the district has refused calls to resign after another lawmaker, a former girlfriend, obtained a restraining order against him, accusing him of assault.
There are no women in Pennsylvania’s 20-member congressional delegation. And the state Legislature ranks among the bottom for representation of women, hitting 19 percent this year.
“Afghanistan is 19 percent,” said Mary Gay Scanlon, one of the Democrats in the congressional race, milling between potential voters at a meet-and-greet at the home of a Democratic committeewoman on a recent Saturday morning.
But party officials worry that the six female candidates, who are largely aligned on the issues, will split the vote and hand the nomination to one of the two well-funded male candidates — one a longtime state legislator, the other a labor-backed former deputy mayor of Philadelphia.
With days to go in the race, one of the women, Molly Sheehan, said last week that the state legislator, Greg Vitali, had asked her to drop out and endorse him. Sheehan, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania who has outraised Vitali and has the support of several resistance groups, argued that he would not have made a similar request of a man. (He said he had.)
Even those who dismiss the notion that women vote only for women and men for men say that with 10 candidates in the race, someone could win with a relatively small percentage of the vote. At a hard-fought Delaware County endorsement meeting recently — about 500 committee members voting in four rounds — no candidate secured the 55 percent to win.
Republicans, meanwhile, have endorsed a woman, Pearl Kim, a daughter of South Korean immigrants and a former county prosecutor and deputy state attorney general who could appeal to the well-educated women who have long been considered swing voters in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
“I honestly feel the men who stepped in are out of line,” said Rachel Amdur, vice chairwoman of the Haverford Democratic Committee, which has stayed neutral in the race. “This is what women do, women recognize it’s not their year all the time. Men do not.”
“The drivers of the Democrats are women,” she said. “It makes me crazy that when it comes to voting, people say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have the man.'”
Nationally, 422 women are still in the running for House seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, including some women who have not officially filed.
Of those House candidates, 55 percent are challenging incumbents, and 29 percent are running for open seats. In the Senate, 49 women are running — 55 percent as challengers and 18 percent for open seats.
Women are starting from a deficit when it comes to representation in the House because an unusually high number of incumbent women are retiring or leaving to run for other offices — 13, or a little over 15 percent of the 84 women now serving. Adding in the death of Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., at least 15 new female candidates will have to be elected to beat the current number of women in office; that many have not been elected since 2012.
But there has also been a similar surge in the number of men running — meaning that women still make up less than a quarter of all candidates running for the House of Representatives, up just slightly from the last election cycle.
In 1992, more than half the women who ran in primaries for the Senate or House lost. Of those who won primaries, far fewer were challenging incumbents: 36 percent in the Senate and 39 percent in the House.
Another difference between 1992 and 2018 is in the kind of women who are seeking office. In 1992, more candidates had held some kind of lower office — even Patty Murray, who became an emblem of that year as the self-described “mom in tennis shoes,” had been a state legislator in Washington.
Here in Pennsylvania, Lynn Yeakel challenged Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican who had been a leader of the interrogation of Anita Hill in the hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in late 1991, an event that drove many women as candidates, voters and donors in the midterms the next year. Yeakel had years of experience leading a group that funded charities, but no political experience, and lost by two points.
“As much as I love the story of all these new women who have emerged — and there will be some who make it — it’s a harder road,” said Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics. “And because they’re not as experienced, they also made choices to run in places that I think some of them, if they were seasoned political women, would say, ‘That’s not an opportunity for me.'”
Some of the best chances for gains may be among Republicans. The most promising candidate coming out of Tuesday’s primaries was Carol Miller, running for an open House seat in West Virginia that leans Republican. In the Senate, several of the incumbent women are Democrats in tossup races; but if Republicans can hold the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, now a House member, would occupy it.
Those who warn about a wave of women’s losses in November say they do so to temper expectations, not to discourage women from seeking office. “I think we have to celebrate the stories of women who have put themselves out there,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, founder of She Should Run, a nonpartisan group aimed at getting more female candidates. “And be prepared that a number of them will lose and also remind people that is not the end of the story, it is the beginning of the story.”