Here’s why 2014 won’t likely be the ‘year of the woman governor’

When Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) lost her bid for a chance to be the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor, she made this claim about her state in her concession speech:

You all know this.  The political pundits, the media, all of the Harrisburg establishment pretty much, just couldn’t believe that a woman could  serve as our governor.  Couldn’t imagine even a woman with my experience and my accomplishments could actually be the governor of Pennsylvania.

They didn’t believe it and they said so over and over again. In fact I think they couldn’t quite imagine it and they didn’t even really think it mattered. And we know better. We know that in fact it matters to have women at every level of leadership in this country.   And so, I believe that women’s accomplishments and our experiences and our talents have to be utilized in every way.  And I believe that they will. Not today. Not this year in Pennsylvania.  But certainly someday in the future, we will have a woman governor. Here and across the country.

Pennsylvania is one of the 24 states that have never had a woman governor, and during the early days of her bid, Schwartz along with a handful of other women, seemed poised to be part of a cadre of women who could make history in 2014. But as primary season chugs along, it appears that 2014 is shaping up to be a status-quo kind of year when it comes to women and gubernatorial races.

“We started out this year saying this could be the year of the woman governor,” said political scientist Kelly Dittmar, of Rutgers University, who has been tracking the races this year. “We were hopeful that we would have more woman nominees than it looks like we are going to have because we saw that it was a gubernatorial year and there was momentum around women in politics and women situated to run for governor in leadership positions and statewide offices.”

Dittmar predicts that after the November general elections, “We might increase by 1 or 2.”

Currently, there are five women governors, including four Republicans: Jan Brewer (Arizona), Susana Martinez (New Mexico), Mary Fallin (Oklahoma) and Nikki Haley (South Carolina).  Maggie Hassan, of New Hampshire, is the lone Democratic woman serving as governor.  With the exception of Brewer, all four are running for re-election and current polls suggest that all of them stand a good chance of winning.  Which means that in November of 2014 there will at least be four women with the big statehouse desk.  The all time high is nine in 2004 and 2007, proving that if there is in fact a women’s political wave, it has yet to reach the gubernatorial level.

Schwartz, 65, who faced a losing battle against businessman Tom Wolf, a self-funder who dipped into his vast fortune for his campaign and used it to boost his name recognition across the state, suggested that the biggest stumbling block for her, was sexism, not the way she ran her campaign.

“The office of governor has been one of the more challenging offices for women to achieve, it’s an executive office, a lone high office. Voters have been more comfortable seeing women in legislative positions than in executive office,” said Kira Sanbonmatsu, co-author of ” More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures.” “Women in Pennsylvania have trouble even achieving state legislative office so it’s a challenging state. In the Schwartz case she faced a formidable opponent and a number of factors in that case, gender being one of them.”

In all, there have been 35 women (2o Ds, 15 Rs), who have served as governor, according to the Center for American and Politics. So far this year 20 women have filed to run for governor, with a handful of women possibly signing up before all of the deadlines.  But, at this point, it’s unlikely that the totals will surpass the 34 women who filed in 1994. It’s a situation that is all the more striking, given the record high 20 women in the Senate and all the buzz about Hillary Clinton possibly shattering “that highest and hardest glass ceiling” in 2016.

“Hillary is an anomaly, she has proven herself over and over again and gone through those hurdles and proven herself at these executive levels. Senate and State,” Dittmar said. “All of the ingrained stereotypes you have about women being the one in charge, she is beyond that.  That is tough for every woman to do. I always say she is a great role model but it is really hard to follow in her footsteps.”

 

In this April 16, 2014 file photo Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke speaks with an instructor at Western Technical College, as she campaigns in La Crosse, Wis. (AP Photo/The La Crosse Tribune, Peter Thomson, File)
In this April 16, 2014 file photo Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke speaks with an instructor at Western Technical College, as she campaigns in La Crosse, Wis. (AP Photo/The La Crosse Tribune, Peter Thomson)

Among the crop of women who seem to have the best chance of winning in November:

  • Martha Coakley (D) in Massachusetts — State Attorney General Coakley, who failed in her 2010 Senate bid, is ahead of her September primary rivals. General election polls with her up against GOP candidate Charlie Baker are tightening, yet she maintains the lead.
  • Christine Jones (R) in Arizona — Jones, a former Go Daddy executive, has several opponents in the August Republican primary, and polls show it as a wide open race, with Jones among the favorites. Jones is seeking to succeed Brewer, who decided not to try for a third term.
  • Mary Burke (D) in Wisconsin — Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive and Secretary of Commerce will likely emerge from the Democratic primary set for August, and polls matching her against current Gov. Scott Walker (R) are tightening.
  • Gina Raimondo (D) in Rhode Island — State Treasurer and former businesswoman Raimondo is in a tight primary race against Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, but should she emerge the winner, she stands a good chance of becoming the state’s first Democratic woman governor.

In surveying the overall list of women running for governor, Dittmar noticed a trend in the resumes of the women who are running — they have business backgrounds as well as political experience.

“This gives them important and diverse credentials that may appeal to different subsets of voters,” Dittmar said.

Another trend, which is playing out in governors races as well as Senate races, is women leading with their gender.  Schwartz, in one of her TV ads, said she would break up the old boys network, suggesting the kind of gender based challenges she faced as a woman and also arguing for how gender would inform her governing.

It didn’t work for Schwartz, yet other women candidates are using their identity as a way of galvanizing women voters around a shared identity.

“You do see women kind of having a wider repertoire in terms of their strategy. There is a greater opportunity now for women to use their situation as mothers as a credential, for instance.  So in some ways, things are moving in a positive direction for women candidates,” said Sanbonmatsu, also of Rutgers. “But going forward the dearth of women governors is problematic for potential presidential candidates in the near term because that’s the natural place to look.”

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