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Red or Blue, Politics Doesn't Predict Where Women Win

Why aren't there more female governors? A look at historical data sheds some light on women's campaigns for the top office.

A near-record number of women have thrown their hats into the ring for governor this year. While many lost in primaries, seven women have strong chances of being elected or re-elected in November. But in a country where women make up more than 50 percent of the population, it's been a disappointing year. So we decided to take a look at why women have won the governorship in some states but not others.

As it stands, four female governors are favored to win re-election -- Republicans Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, along with Democrat Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Another three women are strong contenders for the governorship -- Democrats Mary Burke in Wisconsin, Martha Coakley in Massachusetts and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island.

If you take a close look, this year’s mix of female governors and gubernatorial candidates is all over the map. Fallin is a conservative Republican in a red state. Martinez is a conservative Republican in a blue state. Coakley and Raimondo are Democrats running in blue states, while Burke and Hassan are Democrats running in purple states.

Indeed, for all the Democratic rhetoric about a Republican “war on women” and evidence of a persistent gender gap in presidential elections that favors the Democrats, there seems to be little correlation, either historically or now, between female governors, their partisan affiliation and the ideological leanings of their state.

Using raw data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, we analyzed which states have had women as governors and found some interesting patterns: 

  • Exactly half of the 50 states have had a woman governor at some point in history.

  • About 60 percent of the women who have served as governors have been Democrats, and 40 percent have been Republicans.

  • It's not as if all the blue states have had women governors and all the red states haven't. Among blue states -- that is, the most reliably Democratic states in recent presidential elections -- nine have had a woman governor and six haven't. Among red states, 13 have had a woman governor and 10 haven't. Those are pretty similar ratios. (We’ve excluded the competitive “purple” states from our calculations.)

  • Of the 25 states that have had a woman governor, slightly over half are red states. They have elected conservative Republican governors like Fallin, Haley, Alaska’s Sarah Palin and Arizona’s Jan Brewer, as well as Democrats like Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. If you want to go back a bit further, you can count Ann Richards of Texas as well.

  • Today’s blue states are about as likely to elect a Republican woman as a Democratic woman. Many of the female governors who have served in blue states have been Republicans -- Linda Lingle of Hawaii, Jodi Rell of Connecticut and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. The opposite is true for today’s red states.

  • The mix of states that have never had a woman governor is equally diverse. While many of these states are red, a bunch of solidly blue states have never had a woman governor, including California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island.
How to interpret this data? Many of the experts we checked with said it’s hard to draw any conclusions. It’s almost impossible to discern a pattern for which states have a history of electing women governors and which states don’t. “In each of these states, it’s always hard to make sweeping generalizations, because each state has its own history and unique political context,” said Debbie Walsh, who directs the Center for American Women and Politics.

For instance, New Hampshire -- where two of the last four governors have been women, and where the entire congressional delegation is currently female -- provides easy access to women to state politics because it has a very large state House. By contrast, in New Jersey, political bosses have a strong degree of control over lower offices, so it’s harder for candidates to break in.

Some states are just mysterious. The South Carolina Legislature has historically been one of the most male-dominated in the United States -- yet Haley was able to rise to governorship.

Many of the states that haven’t elected women as governors actually had quite a few members of Congress and statewide officials who were women. According to the Rutgers data, the states that have never had a woman as governor have nonetheless averaged about one U.S. senator, seven U.S. House members and 10 statewide officials who were women. California alone has had two female senators, 36 House members and nine statewide elected women. New York has had three female lieutenant governors. Even a smaller state like Minnesota has had 14 women elected to statewide office.

This seems like a reasonably sized pool to produce candidates that could win the governorship at some point. Yet none of these female politicians have made the leap to their state's top office. “Women's representation at one level of office is not tied to women’s representation at another level,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at the center. “Just because you see a lot of women in the legislature in a state doesn’t necessarily mean you see a lot in Congress.”

The absence of female governors in some states is not for lack of trying, though. In many of these states, women have made credible bids for the top slot.

In Maryland, Republican Ellen Sauerbrey came close to defeating Democrat Parris Glendening in 1994, while Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend failed in a bid to succeed Glendening eight years later. In Colorado, Democrat Gail Schoettler came very close to winning in 1998, while in Rhode Island, Myrth York was the Democratic nominee in three straight elections but never won.

So what's stopping these states from electing women to the governorship? Here are a few theories, none of them particularly satisfying.

Long-serving incumbents are blocking the path for women (and for men).

Iowa has had only four governors since 1969. As a result, “recent history has not presented a lot of opportunities for women, or any challenger, to run a competitive campaign against what are perceived to be powerful governors,” said Christopher W. Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa political scientist. “These incumbents were well liked and for the most part won re-election quite easily, meaning most candidates did not see these folks as vulnerable and worthy of running against.”

In Minnesota, meanwhile, “the state is still a closed political system where both parties, but especially Democrats, continue to recruit by looking to the past,” said Hamline College political scientist David Schultz. “They seem to recruit or draw upon the sons and grandsons of former dead Democrats.”

In some states, Congress is a more attractive office to run for than governor.

Maine’s small size and powerful state legislature “make it possible for strong women candidates to move directly from the legislature to the Congress, with the governorship less relevant as a career route,” said University of Maine political scientist Kenneth Palmer.

The men that the women ran against were strong incumbents.

A good example is California, where three women have been gubernatorial nominees -- Dianne Feinstein in 1990, Kathleen Brown in 1994 and Meg Whitman in 2010. Each was a credible candidate, but each faced California political giants. Feinstein and Brown faced Republican Pete Wilson, and Whitman ran against Democrat Jerry Brown. “In all three cases, the wily, much more experienced male candidate ran circles around the lesser-experienced female candidate,” said California-based Democratic strategist Garry South.

Ultimately, the general consensus among observers is that it's just a matter of time before every state has a woman win the governorship. “As they say in the investment business, past performance is not indicative of future performance,” South said. “These unique past circumstances should not be taken as evidence that a woman governor could not be elected in California.”

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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