A voter enters a polling location to cast a ballot during the West Virginia Republican primary. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
The political power and aspirations of American women have been in the national spotlight for much of the past year and a half, starting with the Women’s March on the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Tuesday’s primaries, the first multistate ones of 2018, were some of the first tests of how that energy will translate tangibly for female candidates.
A record number of women are running for House seats this cycle, and the numbers are high at every level of public office. Exit polls featuring gender breakdowns are not yet available, so it’s unclear how many female voters turned out, but there’s one stat from Tuesday that’s major cause for celebration among advocates of increasing the number of women in public office: Women won 16 of the 19 open House Democratic primaries.
And there were bright spots for Republican women as well. Both Republican incumbents in Indiana, Reps. Jackie Walorski and Susan Brooks, will seek reelection in districts deemed likely or solidly Republican by Cook Political Report.
In the four states that held primary elections Tuesday — Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia — women won the parties’ nominations in 27 out of 43 congressional districts, or 63 percent, according to Gender Watch 2018, a project at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
Even states that don’t have the best track record for sending women to high lawmaking positions saw significant strides. Women secured half of the major party nominations for U.S. House seats in West Virginia. Democrats Kendra Fershee and Talley Sergent will go onto the general election in the first and second congressional districts, and Carol Miller is the Republican nominee in the third.
And some of the notable wins come from black women, a demographic that the Democratic leadership has credited with being the backbone of much of the party’s successes.
“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said in December.
Eight black women won primaries Tuesday, with solid showings in North Carolina, a state the left is banking on to go blue later this year and eventually in 2020.
Political realities, however, might make the general elections more difficult. Four Democratic women who won primaries in North Carolina are in districts that the Cook Political Report says are solidly, leaning or likely to vote Republican. Three Democratic women in Indiana will face candidates in solidly Republican districts. And two Democratic women are nominees for open House seats that are currently deemed solidly Republican. In Ohio, six Democratic women nominees will challenge Republican incumbents in districts deemed solidly or likely Republican. And in West Virginia, both Democratic women nominees will challenge Republican incumbents in districts deemed solidly Republican.
However, the leaders of Emily’s List, a nonprofit group that supports female Democratic candidates, are optimistic that the 2018 general election will see major gains for women.
“What we’re seeing is that voters across the country are responding to these women who bring phenomenal, different experiences,” Christina Reynolds, Emily’s List’s vice president of communications, told The Fix. “They bring a new voice to the table as too many tables are all white men and they bring a desire to fix the issues that their communities are facing and that are really resonating with voters. And we’re seeing it around the country and we think we’ll continue to see it in November.”
Future primaries are providing more reason for optimism among Democrats — in particular in California and New York in June and Pennsylvania next week — for continued success with women seeking political offices in part out of frustration with Congress and the Trump administration’s policies.
At the end of last year, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel warned the White House that the GOP was having trouble securing support from female voters. Now, even some groups who reliably vote Republican, like white evangelical women, appear to be less supportive of Trump.
Dissatisfaction with Washington in general, and the Trump administration in particular, spurred many women to seek office. If Tuesday is any indication, there is a good chance those factors will actually send more women to Capitol Hill, where only 22 women hold Senate seats and 84 hold House seats, or at least give them a good shot at going.