The most recent rounds of primaries, including last Tuesday’s in Minnesota and Wisconsin, set records for women nominees in a single year: 198 for U.S. House, 19 for U.S. Senate and 13 for governor.
This, on top of a slew of historic “firsts” this year, including Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia as the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor, and Democrat Christine Hallquist in Vermont as the first openly transgender candidate to be a major-party nominee for governor.
This midterm election has been a banner year for women in politics, dubbed the new Year of the Woman and dominated by Democrats running to repudiate President Donald Trump.
But beyond those seeking elected office, a sisterhood of women boosting women is taking shape. Donors, mentors and activists are laying the foundation for gender parity in government and for gains they said will be felt for election cycles to come.
“Our voices will not be heard in Congress if there are not people there who understand our lives,” said Giovanna Gray Lockhart, a Democratic donor and founder of the NY Women’s Collective.
The collective, part of the Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand-boosted Electing Women Alliance, a national network of local “giving groups,” has gone from about 20 members to 110 in just more than a year and raised more than $300,000 for Democratic female candidates.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Lockhart said.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezused the same quote at a recent Manhattan event while discussing representation in politics. Since she upset longtime Rep. Joseph Crowley of Queens in a June primary, the Democratic nominee for the House in the 14th Congressional District has been traversing the country to campaign for other progressives.
She told Newsday that her campaign and those of like-minded female candidates in New York share email lists and other resources: “We collaborate.”
The buttressing of support systems is behind the uptick in women seeking elected office, advocates say.
The “incubator” for women candidates operated by She Should Run, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit, began with about 300 members in 2016 and has grown to 13,000, said Sofia Pereira, its director of programs and impact. The program covers networking, confronting sexism and overcoming other barriers in politics.
“The sisterhood has been incredibly powerful in helping women go from thinking about running for office to running for office,” Pereira said.
New Year of the Woman
The first so-called year of the woman, in 1992, was spurred by the televised testimony of Anita Hill before the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee on the sexual harassment she allegedly endured from her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Women ran and won in record numbers, doubling their number in the House, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, or CAWP, at Rutgers University, noting that they still only totaled 10 percent of the representatives.
In 2018, despite the all-time high numbers of female candidates — 476 for the House, 54 for the Senate and 62 for governorships — victories by women in November may not be as stark because there are more first-time candidates and fewer open seats, Walsh said.
“A more seasoned, experienced political person might wait for that open seat, but a lot of what we’re seeing this cycle is in response to the election of Donald Trump,” Walsh said. “They’re kind of just plunging in and they’re mad.”
Walsh said that although she doesn’t expect the number of women in Congress to double this year as it did in 1992, she sees much more potential for women to sustain their engagement and enthusiasm for elections to come.
“Women are connecting all across the country around the issue of sexual harassment and women’s disempowerment in ways that they were simply not able to do in 1992,” she said.
Women giving to women
Female donors also are setting records.
Women account for 31 percent of all contributions this year, higher than in any previous cycle, including 28 percent in 2016 and 27 percent in 2014, according the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. The spike is driven mainly by financial support to Democratic candidates, particularly women, the center found.
“I really wanted women to understand the power that they had and that political fundraising is something so vital to the process,” said Lockhart, who began her giving group at the urging of Gillibrand. “Yes, it needs reform. Yes, it could be better. But until we’re in power, we can’t change it.”
Lockhart was a former special adviser to Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who also started the Off the Sidelines PAC, among the top groups giving exclusively to woman candidates.
Lockhart said that not unlike female candidates, female donors often have to be recruited, nudged or asked in a way that men may not.
“Women haven’t considered it because politics can be very ugly and it disrupts their personal lives and their family lives,” she said.
Together on the trail
Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democratic nominee and first-time candidate challenging longtime Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), cited her young children as part of why she initially hesitated to run for office and said she had to be persuaded by those in her community.
She made history in May by winning Federal Election Commission approval to use campaign funds to cover child care costs while she is stumping. She said she has been fielding messages from mothers — and some fathers — across the country seeking guidance on requesting the same at the state level.
The Amityville activist also has bonded with state Assemb. Christine Pellegrino, a West Islip Democrat who won a special election in 2017 in a district that supported Trump.
The pair met as mothers organizing in their communities, and when Pellegrino decided to run for the state Assembly, “I strapped my baby to my chest and took my toddler out and we went canvassing for her,” Grechen Shirley said.
Pellegrino has returned the favor, endorsing Grechen Shirley’s congressional bid.
“It’s important in all aspects of life to see people who are like you, doing things you want to do,” Grechen Shirley said. “If you’ve never been through a campaign, you don’t know what campaign life is like.”
A similar dynamic has developed in cross-endorsements by Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” actress and Democrat challenging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the Sept. 13 primary.
Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez endorsed each other before the congressional nominee’s surprise primary win. Nixon also has held dual endorsement rallies with other progressive Democrats, including Jessica Ramos of Queens and Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, who are challenging incumbent men in the State Senate.
“You don’t have to go to Albany or Congress and realize you’re alone out there,” said Monica Klein, a political adviser whose Seneca Strategies group counts Grechen Shirley, Nixon and Ramos among its clients. “It’s a practical idea to build a coalition.”
Democrats vs. Republicans
The women running in 2018 are predominantly Democrats.
Of the 476 female candidates who filed for House races, for example, 356 were Democrats and 120 were Republicans, according to CAWP. After primaries, 216 Democratic women and 71 Republican women remain in the running, the data show.
Indeed, the influx of Democratic woman candidates is primarily a pushback on Trump policies they view as steps backward on issues from reproductive rights to environmental protections.
Some efforts are underway by Republicans to make the numbers less lopsided. The National Republican Congressional Committee for the first time named a woman to head recruitment efforts for the GOP in the 2018 cycle, tapping Rep. Elise Stefanik of upstate Willsboro. A Stefanik spokesman said she “led House Republicans in nearly tripling the number of women candidates.”
And to compete with left-leaning nonprofits and PACs backing female candidates, Winning For Women was launched last January. The group splits its fundraising resources between female Republican challengers and incumbents.
“Right-of-center women and supporters have a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere and that’s what we’re trying to do this election cycle,” said Winning For Women spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.
The group, which counts former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) as a board member, is backing Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in her Senate bid and Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) in her re-election effort, among others.
Currently, women make up a third of the Democratic caucus in Congress and 10 percent of the Republican caucus, according to CAWP. Women overall are 20 percent of Congress’ 535 members.
“We’re never going to get to political parity in the country with just one party doing the lift,” Walsh said.
Still, Walsh said she is heartened by the increased activism this election season among women. She said she expects that the data now being collected will show an uptick in female voter participation.
Pereira of She Should Run added: “Even if a woman candidate loses, they’re changing the conversation in their community, showing other women they too can step up and run in that way, setting the groundwork so that if that candidate wants to run again, she will.”
An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for when She Should Run began.
Women candidates in 2018
Filed to date: 54 — 31 Democrats and 23 Republicans.
Still in the running after primaries: 29 — 18 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
Previous record: 40 filed in 2016.
Filed to date: 476 — 356 Democrats and 120 Republicans.
Still in the running after primaries: 272 — 207 Democrats and 65 Republicans.
Previous record: 298 filed in 2012.
Filed to date: 62 — 41 Democrats and 21 Republicans.
Still in the running after primaries: 22 — 15 Democrats and 7 Republicans.
Previous record: 34 filed in 1994.
SOURCE: The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University
Stacey Abrams, Democrat of Georgia: First black woman nominated by a major party for governor.
Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota: Won their primaries and poised to become the two first Muslim women in Congress. Tlaib is running unopposed and Omar is heavily favored in the general election.
Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee: If she wins in November, she would be the first woman to represent the state in the Senate.
Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican of Mississippi: Appointed to the Senate last April and if she wins in November, she would be the first woman elected to represent the state in Congress.
Paulette Jordan, Democrat of Idaho: First Native American woman nominated for governor.
Christine Hallquist, Democrat of Vermont: First openly transgender candidate nominated by a major party for governor.