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It May Be a Great Year for Women Governors

The share of female governorships could exceed 20 percent this year, more women are registering and more incumbents are losing. There's also a revolution in the courts as states use unconstitutional maps.

Massachusetts governor Maura Healey
Massachusetts governor Maura Healey (TNS)
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Maybe a Great Year for Women Governors: The share of governorships held by women might reach or even exceed 20 percent this year. That may sound unimpressive, but it would still represent a historic advance.

Currently, there are nine women governors. That number ties the all-time record for women governors serving at the same time, first reached in 2004 and repeated several times since. Following the November elections, there could be more, with women looking likely to succeed men in several states, notably Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas, Maura Healey in Massachusetts and one of the two women nominees in Arizona. Sanders would be the first woman governor to serve alongside a woman lieutenant governor.

“There has been a growing momentum of women running for office,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “We’ve seen it at every other level.”

There are not only record numbers of women candidates in total but record numbers of Black, Hispanic and Asian women who ran this year. The biggest change, however, has not been demographic but partisan. While lots of Democratic women ran for governor in 2018, this time it’s Republicans who are surging. The previous record of GOP women candidates, Walsh says, was 20. This year, there were 37. A record number of states are seeing women vs. women contests, including key matchups in Arizona, Michigan and Oregon.

"Republican women are going to make history in gubernatorial races across the country this November," says Joanna Rodriguez, deputy communications director for the Republican Governors Association.

There could be a further tilt toward the GOP. All three women Republican governors seeking re-election – Kay Ivey of Alabama, Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Kristi Noem of South Dakota – look like safe bets. On the Democratic side, only Kathy Hochul of New York appears secure at this point. The governors of Kansas, Maine, Michigan and New Mexico are all in tight races.

It might be a stretch to refer to the number of nine women governors as a glass ceiling but getting to double digits would be a breakthrough. The same thing happened at the legislative level. The percentage of women state legislators reached 24 percent in 2006 and then stayed there stubbornly for a decade. The 25 percent mark was finally pierced in 2016. Their numbers have climbed relatively quickly since then and now top 30 percent.

The fact that women legislators represent less than a third of the total is not exactly awe-inspiring, but it beats being stuck below the one-quarter mark. Women have a lot farther to go when it comes to reaching parity among governors. In fact, only a grand total of 45 women have ever served as governor, which is obviously less than the number of states. This year, however, it appears that real, if incremental, progress will be made.
Women in Kansas celebrate the rejection of a measure that would have allowed abortions to be banned
Women in Kansas celebrate the rejection of a measure that would have allowed abortions to be banned. (TNS)
More Women Are Registering: One of the key questions of this political year is whether the Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights will change the electorate enough to alter election outcomes. There’s starting to be some evidence that it might.

In Kansas, where voters earlier this month rejected a measure that would have allowed abortions to be banned, 70 percent of the new voters who registered between the Supreme Court decision and the election were women. Women are also outpacing men as new registrants in other states, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic data services firm.
a bar graph showing the gender gap among new registrants since Dobbs
(Tom Bonier/TargetSmart via Twitter)
Since the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision, 15.6 percent more women than men have registered in Wisconsin. There were double-digit advantages for women registrants in Idaho, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and several other states as well. In Michigan – where an abortion rights initiative might make the November ballot – women are outpacing men by 8.1 percent. “Right now, all signs point to a fired up female electorate around the country in states where abortion rights are under immediate threat,” TargetSmart suggests.

Of course, not all women support abortion rights. Last week, Sanders hosted a roundtable discussion with adoption and foster care leaders in Arkansas. “Every human life is a gift from God that must be valued, protected and empowered, not only in the womb but beyond,” Sanders said. “Arkansas is the most pro-life state in America, but I believe we must now become the most pro-adoption state.”

More Incumbents Are Losing: Last week, Robin Vos barely held onto his job. The longtime speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly angered former President Donald Trump by acknowledging there is no legal way for the state to decertify the results of the 2020 election. Vos barely outpaced the Trump-endorsed “Toss Vos” candidate Adam Steen, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

Not all incumbent legislators have been so lucky. So far this year, the number of incumbents who have lost primaries is up 72 percent from 2020, according to Ballotpedia. Most of the losers are Republicans; about 140 Republicans have lost, compared to 54 Democrats. As a share of the total number of incumbents who are running for re-election, Republicans are losing at twice the rate of Democrats.

Challengers are positioning themselves as more conservative than incumbent Republicans on issues such as transgender sports participation, parental rights in schools and, it hardly needs saying at this point, questions about the 2020 election. In that sense, Republican legislators are facing the same pressures that cost Liz Cheney her job in Congress in Tuesday’s Wyoming primary. Several Wyoming state legislators lost their primaries on Tuesday, including state Sen. Drew Perkins, who lost to Jan. 6, 2021, riot attendee Bob Ide.

Idaho, Wyoming’s neighbor to the west, has led the way in terms of incumbent defeats. Back in May, 18 Idaho state legislators – 30 percent of the total running – lost their seats in primaries. This year, the Idaho Senate killed several bills passed by the House regarding voting rules, criminalizing medical treatment of transgender children (sometimes called gender-affirming care) and book banning. Next year, it’s likely to be a different story.
a gavel resting on a desk
States Use Unconstitutional Maps: Redistricting remains one of the most legally contentious areas of politics. Sometimes, lawmakers don’t seem to care what the courts say.

That’s certainly the case in Ohio, where the state Supreme Court has repeatedly found new congressional and legislative maps unconstitutional. Legislators who run the redistricting commission have managed to get their way anyway, with a federal court allowing rejected maps to be used for elections this year.

Although Ohio lawmakers lead the way in terms of de facto contempt of court, they’re not alone. Courts have rejected maps in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, but those maps are all being used anyway. Federal courts have decided that something – even something that violates the state constitution – is better than nothing for the purposes of holding elections on time. That’s given lawmakers an incentive to run out the clock in order to preserve maps they know can’t pass legal muster.

“We’re seeing a revolution in courts’ willingness to allow elections to go forward under illegal or unconstitutional rules,” said Rick Hasen, a UCLA law professor. “And that’s creating a situation in which states are getting one free illegal election before they have to change their rules.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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