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Another Historic Night for Women, and Not Just in Congress

An unprecedented number of female candidates ran for state or local office this year.

Nevada may make history by electing the first majority-women legislature. As of Wednesday, women had won 20 of the 42 assembly seats. Two races were too close to call.
(AP/Lance Iversen)
For those hoping for a historic night for women, the midterms did not disappoint. With Tuesday's wins, a record number of women will be serving in Congress in 2019. Women and minority candidates also added to the gains they made last year in state and local elections.

But despite the surge -- which was anticipated thanks to an unprecedented number of female candidates running this year -- women are still underrepresented in elected offices. Women in many places will make up no more than one-third of elected officials come next year, even as they make up at least half of the electorate.

“Some will be surprised at the results in that they expected more women to win,” says Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). “But we can use that to fuel further conversations about how we can accelerate women’s political gains.”

Tuesday night brought several milestones for women in state and local politics. Specifically, women candidates made big legislative gains in several states.

In Colorado and Nevada, women helped propel trifecta wins -- where the party gains control of both legislative chambers and the governorship -- for Democrats. (The party won a total of six state government trifectas on Tuesday.)

Nevada may also make history by electing the first majority-women legislature. As of Wednesday afternoon, women had won 20 of the 42 assembly seats. Two races were too close to call. The state already has one of the highest percentages of women in its state legislature in the country at 38 percent. Only Arizona and Vermont have higher representation at 40 percent.

In Texas, women were part of a surge in which Democrats gained 12 seats in the Texas House of Representatives. Most of the women flipping seats were running in races along the Northern Texas border and the greater Houston area.

Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University, notes that many of these races weren’t considered competitive a year ago. “A couple of these candidates ran without party support and basically worked really hard and were able to win,” she says.

Nationally, the number of women in state legislatures could be on track to hit an all-time high. The current level of female representation is 25.4 percent and has been within a percentage point of that since 2009. A pre-election analysis by Reuters of state ballots pegs the new figure will be somewhere at or below 38 percent.

In governors’ races, four of the seven seats Democrats flipped were won by women: Laura Kelly in Kansas, Janet Mills in Maine, Gretchen Whittmer in Michigan and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico.

The closely watched race for Georgia governor, where Democrat Stacy Abrams hopes to become that state’s first African-American female executive, has yet to be called as of Wednesday afternoon. Abrams, though, is currently trailing Republican Brian Kemp.

Abrams’ candidacy got a lot of national attention, and Dittmar says she hopes that, if it fails, political operatives don’t view it as a setback for minority women candidates. There’s been a longstanding belief that women of color can’t win statewide, says Dittmar. 

“It’s not that [Abrams] got blown away,” she says. “My hope is that the message that comes from her success in getting the votes that she did is, it pushes people to think a little differently about who can and should run for governor.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown won reelection in Oregon. Republican Kristi Noem won an open seat in South Dakota, and Republicans Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Kay Ivey of Alabama won reelection. That makes a total of nine women who will be sworn in as governor next year, tying a record high.

Elsewhere, minority and LGBT candidates also made history on Tuesday.

Democrat Jared Polis’ election in Colorado will make him the first openly gay governor in the U.S. come inauguration day next year.

In Minnesota, Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan will be the first woman of color elected statewide and only the second Native American woman in the country to be elected to statewide executive office.

Sen.-elect Melanie Levesque became the first African-American elected to the New Hampshire state Senate. Rep.-elect Gerri Cannon will become the first openly transgender elected official to serve in that state's legislature. Both women were part of Democratic gains in New Hampshire that flipped the state House and Senate to Democratic control.

At the local level, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaff beat back nine challengers to win reelection.

In the open-seat Phoenix mayor’s race, Kate Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela are expected to head into a runoff.

Looking ahead, this year's gains at the state level could mean even more U.S. congresswomen. State legislatures, says Tulane University's Holman, tend to be a pipeline for congressional candidates.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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