A year of the woman? Not so far

Jennifer Lawless

Jennifer Lawless

The day after his inauguration, that narrative was set in stone. After all, hundreds of thousands of women marched across the country to demonstrate their opposition to the new President. Organizations opposed to Trump’s agenda reported a surge in donations.
And groups that recruit women to work on campaigns saw an unprecedented number of people at their training events. In fact, women were so angry, energized, and active that a record number decided to run for office.
Tuesday’s primary elections — in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia — offer an initial window into whether 2018 is, in fact, shaping up to be a Year of the Woman. What do the results tell us?

You can’t win if you don’t run

Even in the Trump era, women remain much less likely than men to run for office. In the four states that held congressional primaries Tuesday, a record number of women — 45 — sought their party’s nomination. But an unusually high number of men did, too. As a result, only 18% of the major-party US House and Senate candidates were women.
Winners and losers from Tuesday's primaries

Winners and losers from Tuesday's primaries

This proportion is indistinguishable from 2016, 2014, 2012, and 2010, according to Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and the Center for American Women and Politics and my own research. Unless women win their primaries — and then the general election — at significantly higher rates than men (more on that in a minute), based on my calculations and analysis of Tuesday’s results, it’s mathematically impossible to see a substantial uptick in the number of women serving in Congress.

There aren’t many GOP women

The overwhelming majority of female candidates (71%) were Democrats, as has been the case for nearly two decades. In 34 of the 44 GOP primaries held Tuesday, not even one woman appeared on the ballot. That’s almost twice the number of races on the Democratic side (18) that featured only men. Lopsided party ratios of this magnitude severely limit the number of women who can win in November.
Even in an election cycle with an unusually high number of competitive districts, more than three-quarters of them remain safe for one party or the other, according to the Cook Political Report. If women don’t compete in GOP primaries, then they can’t be the party’s nominee in the 155 districts that will surely send a Republican to Congress.

Unseating incumbents is difficult

With only one exception, every incumbent who sought re-election won the primary. This is important for two reasons. Perhaps most obviously, 82% of incumbents seeking re-election were men. The second reason we should pay attention to the incumbency advantage is that 14 of the 18 non-incumbent women who won their primaries will face incumbents in November.
To be sure, one of the keys to increasing women’s representation is having women run in all kinds of districts, both open-seat and incumbent-held. But the gains to be made by knocking out an incumbent are far slower-going than those that can result from open-seat contests.

Many wins were in the wrong places

Women were just as likely as men to win their races. In fact, far more so: 57% of women, compared to 32% of men, declared victory Tuesday. In Indiana, West Virginia, and Ohio, the majority of Democratic candidates on the ballot in November will be women. That’s remarkable.
When we take a closer look at the districts where women won, though, it becomes clear that for many of them, general election victories are highly unlikely. Consider Indiana. Democratic women won primaries in five of the state’s nine districts. But all five are solid GOP territory. The two Democratic districts reelected their Democratic male incumbents.
The story is much the same in West Virginia, where Democratic women won the nomination in two of the state’s three congressional districts. Both districts, however, are heavily Republican; and both Democratic women will face Republican male incumbents in November.
In Ohio, Democrats nominated women in 10 of the 16 districts. But only three of those districts are Democratic, and all three are already represented by female incumbents. Meanwhile, in the nine solidly Republican districts, no women even ran in the GOP primary.
I don’t want to diminish the energy and enthusiasm that has propelled a record number of women to run for Congress. And I don’t want to suggest that women shouldn’t throw their hats into the ring even when they face very long odds. I did it myself in 2006, and running for Congress remains the most meaningful experience of my life.
But I also don’t want to set unrealistic expectations. If Tuesday’s primaries are harbingers of what’s to come — and admittedly, the electoral landscape varies from state to state — then the Year of the Woman might turn out to be a year of only incremental gains. We might want to prepare for a Year of the Usual.