A Historic Year for Women, No Matter Who Wins and Loses
They ran in historic numbers, breaking rules, toppling male incumbents in primaries, and upending conventional political wisdom. In a midterm fought like few others, women stepped up as candidates, voters, activists and volunteers in ways that could reshape the nation’s political landscape.
From the millions of women on the left in pink pussy hats who marched around the country and the world the day after President Trump’s inauguration, to the legions of women on the right who cheered him at rallies and exulted over two new conservative Supreme Court justices, women were at the center of the nation’s politics.
On the left, women poured into grass-roots groups determined to regain Democratic control of Congress and flooded organizations that train women how to run for office, expanding the definition of women’s issues beyond education and reproductive rights to include health care, immigration, gun violence and the environment. That energy, and a historic gender gap showing more women supporting Democrats, made it harder for Republican women to emerge as candidates.
According to figures tallied by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, 428 women ran for Congress or governor as Democrats, compared with 162 Republicans. Of these, 210 Democratic women and 63 Republican women remained nominees by Election Day.
Republican women were animated by their own issues, including fears of borders being overrun and a backlash to the #MeToo movement.
Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at the Rutgers center, said that no matter how many women won or lost, the surge of women had changed American politics.
“For some women, that meant not waiting their turn,” she said. “For other women, it also meant running in ways that embraced gender and race as an asset they bring to candidacy and office-holding, instead of a hurdle they have to overcome to be successful in what has been a man’s world of electoral politics.”
Women shattered records and precedents. One-third of the female nominees for the House were women of color, the highest ever. A record number of women faced off against other women, from Arizona to New York. A crop of women ran after they had served in the military or worked for the C.I.A., challenging male ideas of leadership. Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York were among women who defeated long-serving white male incumbents in party primaries. Pennsylvania, which has no women in its 21-member congressional delegation, was guaranteed to get at least one because in one race both candidates were women.
Stacey Abrams was in a tight race to be the first black woman elected governor of any state. In the Senate, several Democratic women from states that voted for President Trump were fighting to survive: Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota most of all.
Challenges from Democratic women threatened the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, as well as incumbents like Barbara Comstock, one of the most prolific fund-raisers in the House.
This cycle, the first since the defeat of the first female major party presidential candidate, many women ran without being asked. And they ran differently, ignoring the timeworn advice to female candidates to talk about your résumé and pretend you don’t have a personal life. Instead, they featured their children in ads, offered personal testimony about sexual harassment and abuse, and opened up about family struggles with drug addiction and debt, to connect to many Americans with the same struggles.
Female candidates like Mikie Sherrill, Katie Hill and Amy McGrath, running for House seats in New Jersey, California and Kentucky, raised staggering amounts of money, though women still raised less, on average, than men. And women played bigger roles as donors, giving 36 percent more money to congressional campaigns than in 2016.
But as many more women ran, it was inevitable that many more would lose, as well. Heightened political activism in the Trump era brought out many more men running for office, too, and many of the female candidates were Democrats running in districts that are gerrymandered or all but assured to vote Republican.
Despite being more than half the population and the voters, women were still less than a third of all candidates for Congress, the governor’s offices and other statewide executive seats.
Women running for governor, from Idaho to Texas to Maine, faced the steepest hurdles of all. Twenty-two states have never elected a woman as governor — six states have female governors now — and research has shown voters are more reluctant to choose women as chief executives than as legislators.
In a political season in which disgust with Washington runs high, many women hope their lack of traditional political credentials will enhance their outsider appeal: Jahana Hayes, a former teacher of the year, was a surprise winner of a Democratic House primary in Connecticut. If elected she would be the state’s first black woman elected to Congress.
Ms. Hayes joined a parade of other potential firsts: Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, as Tennessee’s first female senator; Kristi Noem, a Republican, as South Dakota’s first female governor; Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Omar Ilhan of Minnesota, both Democrats, as the first Muslim-American women in Congress, and three Native American women who would be the first in Congress: Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, both Democrats, and Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, a Republican.
The elections also could bring a younger generation to Washington: Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as well as Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat running for a House seat in Iowa, are both in their late 20s.
President Trump was elected by the largest gender gap on record, and women have moved even more leftward throughout the first two years of his presidency, even as men gravitate toward the Republican Party.
In a Gallup survey of registered voters in September, while men favored Republicans over Democrats, 50 percent to 44 percent, women preferred Democrats by 58 percent to 34 percent. That 24-point split had widened from 8 points in June. The gap between the genders is even more striking among millennials. Earlier this year, a Pew poll found that 70 percent of millennial women affiliated with or leaned toward the Democrats, up from 56 percent four years ago. Just under half of millennial men did.
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