Though hundreds of women are running and winning in 2018’s Congressional primaries, Republican women are strikingly underrepresented: just 17 percent of women nominees so far this cycle are Republicans. Prior to yesterday’s primary, Tennessee was widely considered to be an exception to this “rule”, with several experienced and well-known Republican women running for House, Senate, and Governor. The state has never elected a woman Governor or Senator.
Just two women walked away yesterday with Republican nominations, though: current U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn for Senate and Charlotte Bergmann for House District 9. In the closely-watched race for Governor, U.S. Representative Diane Black lost her primary bid to a male political newcomer in an upset some Tennesseans view as a pushback to establishment politics.
Diane Black’s loss is particularly painful since her Gubernatorial bid entailed forgoing reelection to her House seat; the Congress she’s leaving behind has just 23 Republican women at the moment, and almost a quarter of those women aren’t seeking reelection in 2018. Black, a legislator with years of state- and national-level political experience, will no longer get to represent her state in any elected capacity. Marsha Blackburn’s nomination for Senate, on the other hand, presents a likely opportunity for deep-red Tennessee to elect its first female Senator — and for at least a few Republican women to hold on in Congress.
Democratic women won nominations in four out of nine House districts: TN-2, TN-3, TN-4, and TN-6. Tennessee’s 8th district is still too close to call, though female Democrat Erika Pearson is currently in the lead with slightly over 50 percent of the vote. All of these districts are currently held by Republicans, and all but TN-6 are held by men. This means all of yesterday’s Democratic women nominees are unlikely to succeed in their general elections. However, their wins yesterday mean that Tennessee Democrats have voted for a gender-balanced November ballot, an uncommon outcome when just 23 percent of non-incumbent candidates this midterm season are women.
Tennessee ranks 40th out of 50 states in RepresentWomen’s 2018 Gender Parity Index, reflecting extremely low numbers of women in Tennessee politics. In order to increase women’s representation, Tennessee should consider systemic reforms, like ranked choice voting (RCV), to eliminate vote splitting for women candidates and increase campaign civility. Additionally, political parties and PACs in Tennessee should adopt recruitment targets to ensure that women candidates can run with the same support as male candidates have always been able to. Tennessee has a long way to go to reach parity, but systems reforms present a realistic and effective path forward.