WASHINGTON — In November, Americans could elect more than 100 women to the House for the first time in history — and put more new women in the House than in any prior election, a new race-by-race analysis shows.
But the impending surge is being driven entirely by Democrats: The number of Republican women in the House is actually poised to decline.
Between 30 and 40 new women are poised to enter the House next January, shattering the previous record of 24 set in 1992's "Year of the Woman." And much as pundits interpreted 1992's wave as a backlash against Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation, 2018 is now clearly a backlash to President Donald Trump's election.
Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton didn't just launch the Women's March; it set off an avalanche of Democratic women running for Congress, many of them first-time candidates, ranging from former Navy helicopter pilots to former CIA officers. Of the 254 non-incumbent Democratic nominees for the House, an unheard-of 50 percent are women, compared to 18 percent of Republicans.
Currently, there are 61 female Democrats and 23 female Republicans serving in the House. But after November, Democrats could expand their ranks of women by more than a third. Meanwhile, the GOP's ranks could shrink by up to a third.
Democratic primary voters have made clear they feel the best way to send a message to Trump is to send a woman to Congress: In Democratic House primaries featuring at least one man, one woman and no incumbent on the ballot, a female candidate has won 69 percent of the time. In the same situations on the GOP side, a female candidate has won just 35 percent of the time.
A pair of insurgent female progressives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, defeated 20-year Democratic incumbents, Reps. Joe Crowley (NY-14) and Mike Capuano (MA-07), in highly symbolic primaries that made national headlines.
But Pennsylvania stands out as the state where Democratic women are poised to gain the most. In February, the state's top court ordered a new congressional map that prompted multiple GOP retirements and could help elect a quartet of Democratic women from the Philadelphia suburbs: Madeleine Dean (PA-04), Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06) and Susan Wild (PA-07).
Texas could see the next-biggest surge: In March, Veronica Escobar (TX-16) and Sylvia Garcia (TX-29) won their primaries for safely Democratic open seats and are virtually guaranteed to become the first Latinas elected from the Lone Star State. Four other states have strong potential to add two Democratic women each: Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia.
Republicans, whose primaries have been defined much more by candidates' degree of loyalty to Trump, are headed in the opposite direction. Of the 23 GOP women in the House, four chose to run for another office this year and two are retiring. In Tennessee alone, Reps. Diane Black (TN-06) and Marsha Blackburn (TN-07) chose to run statewide and are all but certain to be succeeded by GOP men.
Of the remaining 17 GOP women in the House, three are at severe risk of losing re-election this fall: Reps. Mimi Walters (CA-45), Claudia Tenney (NY-22), Barbara Comstock (VA-10). An additional four are only slight favorites in their races. Meanwhile, there are only three states where House GOP women are poised to add to their ranks: New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia.
The House's burgeoning gender gap isn't the only demographic chasm on display in 2018; the parties are diverging along racial lines as well.
At the moment, 86 percent of House Republicans are white men, compared to 41 percent of House Democrats.
The race-by-race analysis suggests that could widen to 87 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats — a massive 50-point divide — come 2019. That would put Republicans increasingly at odds with the country, considering that white males now comprise just 31 percent of America's population.
David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report, is an NBC News contributor and senior analyst with the NBC Election Unit.
If these projections are on target and there are indeed 100 women elected to the US House this November, that would translate into women comprising 22.9% of the House which puts the US at about 77th - right between Singapore and the Republic of Moldova. Institutional reforms like recruitment targets & ranked choice voting are a terrific complement to the great work so many of you are doing to prepare individual women to run.
Speaking of institutional reforms, The Business Post of Ireland ran a piece about the record numbers of women running which is firmly behind a paywall but I have thoughtfully included the full text here that includes my attempt to put the unusual number of open seats in perspective:
‘Or, should I say: congresswoman! Let’s get that much out of the way right now,” bellowed the jubilant head of the postal workers’ union. “Congresswoman!” cried a community activist. “I like the way that sounds.”
“Congresswoman?” said the executive director of a union representing non-profit social service, home care and childcare employees. “God bless you and thank you.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hair resting behind her shoulders, looked up from the notes she was furiously taking and smiled each time the term was used. On August 7 roughly 200 people had edged their way into a community hall in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough, to listen to her speak.
The 28-year-old listened, first, for the best part of an hour, to a line of environmentalists, car washers, teachers and health care campaigners. When her turn finally came, Ocasio-Cortez said firmly: “I’m so thrilled and honoured by folks calling me ‘congresswoman’. But I am not ‘congresswoman’ yet.”
In her district’s Democratic primary at the end of June, Ocasio-Cortez defeated the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, a man twice her age and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. News of the upset was carried around the world. In November, she may become the youngest-ever woman elected to Congress. The Bronx, then, will have plenty to talk about.
But neither the excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s elevation nor the novelty of her candidacy is an anomaly in 2018. In the US this year, a record-breaking number of women – more than 500 –are running for office.
Earlier this year, in Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009, there were 113 women registered as candidates. Last time round, there were just 12.
Spain now has a majority-female cabinet. France is 50-50. The Mexican-president elect has stated that he wants women to hold eight posts in his 16-member cabinet come December (already, the percentage of women in office in Mexico is in the very high forties, a circumstance that was legislatively induced). Last year, 208 women MPs were elected to the House of Commons, a record high of 32 per cent.
In 1990, an opponent criticised then-prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, for “going for” a second child while in office. “It is clear that the prime minister of Pakistan wants it all: motherhood, domesticity, glamour,” sniffed Syeda Abida Hussain. “She is even seeking more power than she has. Such a person in an ordinary context would be described as greedy.”
On August 2, prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern – hailed by some as being the second ever woman to do as Bhutto did – returned to work six weeks after giving birth to her first child.
Ardern returns with the option of breastfeeding her daughter in New Zealand’s ‘baby-friendly’ chamber and has tweaked the rules to allow children join their parents in the parliamentary swimming pool. “I’m not the first woman to multi-task,” she said, laughing, when she announced her pregnancy. At 38, Ardern is also the youngest female head of government in the world.
Ocasio-Cortez may not yet be a congresswoman. But to the supporters gathered anxiously last week to see her, some on folding chairs, many more standing towards the back of the hall, all perspiring heavily in the August fug, she seemed close enough.
What is the source of the momentum that seems to be building behind women with ambitions to enter politics, and to succeed once there? “This is not just a curiosity. It’s not an interesting number or statistic. It’s historic,” Anna Eshoo, a democratic representative from California, told Politico in March. “This year a lot of unspoken but tough walls have come tumbling down.”
The recent American experience is certainly instructive. The years-long campaigning by organisations like Black Lives Matter. The sprawl of the #MeToo movement. Reproductive rights. Increasingly urgent protests against family separation and unequal pay. All of these efforts, many of them in response to measures mooted or implemented by the Trump administration, have been led, or brought to prominence, by women.
The developments are to be welcomed, but with the right amount of scrutiny, according to Cynthia Richie Terrell, the founder and director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organisation that works to advance female representation in appointed and elected office.
“I would say this year definitely feels different,” she says. “But there’s a caveat.” Terrell used as an explanatory crutch the ‘excalibur’ scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”).
“Like the handing out of swords, resignation by men due to predatory sexual behaviour and other scandals, leaving openings for women, cannot be the basis of our revolution,” she says with a small laugh.
Terrell is nonetheless heartened by what she hopes is a “normalisation” of women’s power and women’s candidacies. She says that for her and many of her peers the goal was not to have one woman running, even if she has star qualities, but to have two, three, multiple women running against each other.
“So voters can choose,” Terrell says. “So the candidate is not just the woman, it’s the best candidate. It can be hard to see that though, a true blossoming of female representation. It’s sobering to look into the depth of underrepresentation of women, the depth of American exceptionalism, and our isolation from the rest of the world where new standards are being met.”
The US ranks behind 200 countries, globally, and it’s not because of the ambition or education of American women, says Terrell, but because of the system, and the lack of quotas, or even targets, as well as enduring structural barricades to entry. While applauding enthusiasm and candidacy she said it was a distraction from the structural reform necessary for consistent and lasting change.
“We’re behind countries that are far less economically advanced, and, again, it’s not that the women are different. It’s that the systems are different. It’s very important to work collaboratively and in solidarity with those who are running and winning, but at the same time ‘the year of the woman’ is a silly catchphrase when we need this to be the century of women,” Terrell says.
In a 2014 body of research carried out by Columbia University (eventually summarised under the headline, When Women Rule, Nations Prosper), it was found that a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.8 per cent greater increase in GDP growth.
The Columbia research emphasises women’s “participatory, democratic style” and acknowledges an appetite – the voter’s tendency to better trust women in tricky interpersonal or emotional situations.
The summary reads: “A mere 15 per cent of parliamentary representatives around the world are women — a reflection that for all the benefits democracy may bestow upon nations, it has not yet fully delivered on social equity. There are hints of change: women in top national leadership positions — president or prime minister — have more than quadrupled between 1950 and 2004, from four to 18. Recently, women have been elected in every corner of the globe, including Chile, Germany, Liberia, and South Korea.”
Four years on, the number of incumbent female heads of state and government is 26. So far this year, Romania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados have all installed women at the top for the first time in history.
A celebrated 2012 analysis by the consultancy firm McKinsey suggested that private profit is also easier achieved by diverse and inclusive boards. Terrell and her colleagues are having conversations about other walks of life in which productivity and non-monetary dividends can be similarly reached, as in judicial appointments. “Judicial outcomes are actually more important than legislative outcomes,” she says.
Terrell’s organisation, RepresentWomen, can express concerns about the category of outcome, but not about the substance or the politics. “Pushing for pro-choice, democratic women is not actually parity,” she says. “We can only achieve parity when indigenous women, Republican women, and lower-income women all have representation.”
It is incorrect, in the political climate of panic over isolationism, nationalism and “resistance” against other populist forces, to look at voguish social democrats with liberal agendas like Ocasio-Cortez or progressive feminists like Ardern and take their progress as a given for women on all sides of the political spectrum.
To take the US as an example: according to the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, of 408 women running for the House of Representatives, 305 are Democrats and 103 are Republicans. A rising tide, if it really is rising, lifts all boats, not just left-wing challengers.
Clare Malone, politics writer with the US news site Five Thirty-Eight, said in a recent podcast on the theme that Republican female politicians had “a very fair beef about the way they are talked about in the press by their opponents”. Ads are often sexist, demeaning, and nicknames get bandied around, Malone observed.
This makes somebody like Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, a “cult hero” for some women of the right, according to Malone, who said there was something to be said for high-profile Republican models and “polished, high-profile women on the right.” “Sarah Palin, they are not,” she said.
Election does not equate to popularity, and in any case popularity does not insulate a politician from pot-shots and abuse. In 2012, the then prime minister of Australia and the first woman to have the position, Julia Gillard, stood on the floor of parliament and took apart the “repulsive double standards” of the then leader of the opposition. The excoriating 15-minute clip is summarised on its own Wikipedia page under Misogyny Speech.
Gillard is heckled but, by the end, assumes a rare self-possession. She concludes, quietly and calmly: “The leader of the opposition should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society, because we are entitled to a better standard than this.”
After Gillard’s term, a proposed telemovie about her life was rejected “by every local network, cable broadcaster and digital streaming service”, according to the Daily Telegraph in Australia.
In order to defeat Joe Crowley as she did, Ocasio-Cortez told Rolling Stone she sent 170,000 text messages and knocked on 120,000 doors. Her victory took everybody by surprise, at first, but soon vocal opponents from within the Democratic party and without began to circle in earnest.
At the end of the event in the Bronx, a member of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign team pleaded with gathered reporters and members of the public to clear out of the community hall and into the summer thunderstorm developing outside.
The waiting group shifted here and there without really moving. One man accidentally dropped a handful of flyers bearing the face of another female political hopeful in New York, Sex And The City star Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor on a platform similarly beloved of right-minded urbanites, with emphases on transportation reform, legalised marijuana, and “community over corporation”.
Those holding phones and DSLRs were balanced on steps and pressed up against walls. The voice of the campaign worker eventually rose to an exasperated pitch. “No more questions! No more photos! And no more selfies!” she shouted. “I honestly don’t understand what more you want from her.”
Ayanna Pressley pulled off an unexpected victory on Tuesday in the Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts’s Seventh District, beating 10-term incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano with 59 percent of the vote. Barring a last-minute write-in campaign during the general election, Pressley will be unopposed in November and become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
The primary hinged less on policy differences, and more on the importance of representation and lived experience. Pressley, who was a congressional aide for years and currently serves as a member of Boston’s City Council, positioned herself as providing a political perspective that Capuano could not. She argued that it was not just her race and gender that made her a different sort of leader than Capuano, but also her experiences. Pressley has openly discussed being a sexual abuse survivor and has also spoken of being raised by her mother while her father was incarcerated.
Her background, Pressley argued, would be particularly important for the district, which has a large population of people of color and struggles with economic inequality. Pressley has stressed that representation is important to voters, often arguing that “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”
Pressley spoke of this in a recent debate:
I’m not going to pretend that representation doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t matter about how inclusive and representative we are. It matters because it informs the issues that are spotlighted and emphasized, and it leads to more innovative and enduring solutions. That’s why it matters. You cannot have a government for and by the people if it is not represented by all of the people.
Pressley joins a number of candidates of color and women who have won races this year. But her victory also serves as a significant data point in an ongoing discussion about the need for black women, a group that has played a significant role in elections, to be better represented in seats of political power. And the successes of black female candidates suggest that voters are responding to this demand.
Black women have long been underrepresented in political office. This year suggests things might be changing.
Black women turned out in large numbers for elections in Virginia and Alabama in 2017, prompting leaders, especially on the left, to urge better engagement with black women voters as well as encourage black women to run for office. Still, that is easier said than done.
“A big barrier for a lot of black women candidates, [is] that they can’t even get out of the box, be considered a viable candidate or a serious candidate because power structures have already deemed what a viable candidate looks like, or who they should be,” Kimberly Peeler-Allen, the co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization that works to get more black women involved in politics and elected to office, told me earlier this year.
At the beginning of 2018, black women held just 3.7 percent of state legislative seats, 0.96 percent of statewide elected executive positions, and just five mayorships in the US’s 100 largest cities. (They now hold six after the election of London Breed in San Francisco.) That’s according to an analysis from Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Less than 20 seats in the House of Representatives were held by black women, while a single black woman, Kamala Harris (D-CA), serves in the Senate. Collectively, black women made up just 3.6 percent of Congress.
Black political organizations and strategists have worked to change this, pouring significant resources into black candidates and launching massive voter engagement campaigns aimed at voters of color. These efforts have played a significant role in the success of candidates like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who could become the first black woman governor in the US if she wins the November election.
This year numerous black women succeeded in their primary campaigns. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen notes:
Pressley’s win adds to an exciting moment for progressive groups, but also for black Democrats. The Democratic nominee for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams, could make history as the nation’s first African-American woman governor if she wins. Other women of color, including Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Jahana Hayes in Connecticut, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and Lucy McBath in Georgia are the nominees for their respective congressional districts.
Some groups have argued that the victories of candidates like Pressley and Abrams are directly tied to black women’s calls for more political power.
”Black women are demanding that the progressive movement show us they respect our leadership and the power of our vote, by investing more in Black women running for office; and Black women-led organizing and institutions,” Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the Black Women’s Roundtable, said in a statement earlier this year.
Black politicians are speaking to issues that affect all voters, but they’re also talking about racial injustice and inequality
The call is not just for more representation. It’s also, as Pressley explained, a call for a party that better responds to the issues people of color face. Polls of black voters show that they are dealing with high levels of racial anxiety this year, and that they are looking for politicians capable of speaking to issues like health care and the economy as well as racial justice. And while Trump is someone who black voters want to stand up against, they have also indicated that opposition to Trump isn’t enough to get them to the polls.
“There’s a political courage that candidates are showing that is about not simply saying that they stand against Trump, but naming what the problem is,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which has worked to engage black voters in several contests this year. She adds that “it’s about speaking about the racism, and bigotry that is a part” of what is happening in the country.
Black candidates this cycle have stressed these very things in their campaigns. Pressley, for example, said in a recent interview with Jezebel that she was focusing on “economic inequality, the wealth and wage gap, structural racism, and gun violence,” and criticized her opponent for voting for a “Blue Lives Matter” bill.
Lucy McBath first entered the national stage as a “Mother of the Movement” after her son was killed in an act of racist gun violence, and is running for Congress in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. She has campaigned on issues like the economy, but has also highlighted gun violence and the ways it particularly affects communities of color. Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has called for the suspension of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, a measure that critics argue is too often used to justify the murders of black men while also failing to protect black women from criminal charges.
And promoting these types of issues has also come with a concerted effort to mobilize black voters, particularly black women.
It is a strategy that could lead candidates of color to success in November and future elections. And for black voters, it could create a lasting change in how they engage and are engaged with in political contests.
“It is important for all progressive and democratic candidates to take note of how [black candidates] are centering black voters and their issues, and are applying their own lived experience to talking about these issues,” Shropshire said. “Voters are looking for people who are genuine and can understand what they are going through, but are also willing to show courage in this political moment.”