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Transgender Candidate Makes History in a Year of 'Firsts' for Women

With a month of primaries left, the record for the number of female nominees for governor has already been broken. Some of them are also the first black, Latina and Native American women nominated by a major party.

Vermont Primary Governor
Vermont Democrat Christine Hallquist, the nation's first transgender nominee for governor, applauds with her supporters during her election night party on Tuesday.
(AP/Charles Krupa)
Christine Hallquist made history in Vermont on Tuesday, becoming the first transgender person in America ever nominated for governor by a major party. The Democrat will challenge GOP Gov. Phil Scott in the fall.

"Christine's victory is a defining moment for trans equality and is especially remarkable given how few out trans elected officials there are at any level of government," Annise Parker, the president of the Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates, said in a statement. 

Hallquist's win is the latest in a series of "firsts" for women running for governor. In earlier primaries this year, Democratic voters in Georgia, Texas and Idaho became the first ever to offer major-party gubernatorial nominations respectively to black, Latina and Native American women.

"We're proud of Christine's historic candidacy, and we welcome her to the most diverse crop of gubernatorial nominees in American history," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement.

All told, including Hallquist, a total of 12 women have been nominated for governor this year, shattering the previous record of 10.

"It's my lifelong dream come true to see this progress," says Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a political scientist at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

More women remain viable candidates in upcoming races, including Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman who has a polling lead heading toward the Florida Democratic primary on Aug. 28, as well as the high-profile challenge that actress Cynthia Nixon is bringing against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in next month's Democratic primary.

While female candidates have enjoyed unprecedented success in primaries this year, there are currently just six women serving as governor (in Alabama, Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon and Rhode Island). Even if enough women are elected this year to break the record of nine female governors serving at the same time, they'd still represent only 20 percent of the total, notes Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women candidates.

"I really want to emphasize that this is a marathon," Steele says. "I want this to be a sustained movement over a long period of time to get women elected to office."

Steele takes issue with the media narrative that more women are running for office strictly in reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump and the #metoo movement. Although those have been motivating factors for some, she notes that many of the successful candidates for governor have had years of prior experience in other offices, such as the legislative leadership roles played by Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia, and Gretchen Whitmer, who won the Democratic nomination in Michigan last week.

Hallquist is a bit of an exception in this regard. She has a background in electrical engineering and heads a utility but doesn't have much of a formal political resume. She made up for that apparent lack of training with her performance in the primary, says Bertram Johnson, a political scientist at Middlebury College.

"She raised the most money and she did quite well in the debates," he says. "She's got an infrastructure plan that was probably the most detailed policy proposal in the Democratic race."

Historically, women candidates have boasted greater experience than their male counterparts, seeking to present themselves as unimpeachably qualified. That isn't so much the case this year, at least for lower-level offices, says Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

"This year, we're seeing both women with extensive political experience," Pearson says, "and also people with less experience."

Democratic women who are interested in running see this cycle as a great opportunity, she says. As is typical for the party that controls the White House, Republicans are expected to lose some of the gains they've registered at the state level throughout this decade.

As much as the Trump presidency may be motivating some women to run, the example of Hillary Clinton is too, suggests Jason Windett, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who studies women candidates. The president's Democratic challenger didn't win in 2016, but she did carry the popular vote.

"You can almost call it a 'Hillary effect,'" he says. "A lot of media outlets oversimplify it as a Trump backlash. Our research shows a pretty substantial effect that when there are prominent women candidates, we see more women running for lower offices."

He compares it to the 1970s, when the women's rights movement and the push to enact an Equal Rights Amendment led to a surge in the number of female candidates.

In U.S. House primaries this year where a single woman candidate has run against a single male opponent, the woman has prevailed more than 60 percent of the time, suggesting that voters -- at least on the Democratic side, where the majority of women are running -- are giving candidates a bit of a gender boost.

Not all women are winning, of course.

In Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz defeated state Rep. Erin Murphy and state Attorney General Lori Swanson to take the Democratic nomination for governor on Tuesday. Democrats in Wisconsin selected State Superintendent of Education Tony Evers, who outpaced a large field that included former state Rep. Kelda Roys and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

Some highly prepared women may face a different "Hillary effect," suggests Duerst-Lahti.

"The tragic irony," she says, "is that smart and policy-oriented women -- women who can run circles around comparable men, who would make excellent governors -- are still being punished like adolescent girls who lose popularity in junior high because they are too smart."

But with record numbers of women not only running but having won nomination for governor, their ranks could increase come November. Whitmer and Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee in New Mexico, enjoy early polling leads, while Maine Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills is in a dead heat against Republican businessman Shawn Moody.

"We're seeing women step up because they want to effect change around certain issues," Steele says. "Certainly when things are so tough at the federal level, the governors have become incredibly important."

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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