Women are winning Senate primaries this year — but not many of them are running

In Kentucky and Georgia, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn sailed into their respective state's Democratic Senate nominations on Tuesday. In Oregon, Monica Wehby defeated her three opponents in the Republican Senate primary, despite personal attacks that dominated election coverage of the race for the past week. Earlier in May, Sen. Kay Hagan won the Democratic nomination for the North Carolina senate seat.

 

Their success would seem to indicate a bountiful year for female candidates, but the reality is there just isn't that many women running. In the Senate primaries  already finished for this year's election cycle, 14 women ran. Half of them won their primary race or qualified for a runoff. However, those 14 women represent a small fraction of the 76 total candidates vying for Senate seats so far this year.

"People get so incredibly excited about the number of women who are running on the national level," says Susannah Wellford, chairwoman of Running Start, a group that tries to get young women to run for office. "But it's just not true when you look at the total number of women running" compared to men.

Recent polling shows that voters are accepting of female candidates on a national level. Pew Research Center released a study earlier this week, which examines how much different candidate traits affect a voter's perception of them. Seventy-one percent of voters said it wouldn't affect their vote if a presidential candidate were a women. Nineteen percent said it would make them more likely to vote for the candidate.

However, if you step down to the state and local level, it becomes far clearer why more women aren't running for higher office in the first place, despite the potential successes. There's just not much of a farm team of women candidates to feed those national races.

Nationwide, women make up 24 percent of state legislatures. It's higher in some states, such as Colorado, where 41 percent of the legislature features female members. In some states -- like South Carolina, where women make up 13 percent of the legislature -- they are far lower. Only five of the nation's 50 governors are women. In the nation's 100 largest cities, there are only 12 female mayors. Eighteen percent of cities that have populations over 30,000 have female mayors.

Even fewer women of color serve in government. In 2011, one-fifth of the female state legislators were minorities. Ten percent of the women in statewide elected executive office are women of color. There are three women of color serving as mayors in the nation's 100 largest cities.

With so few women serving in state or local positions, can it be a surprise that only 18 percent of legislators in the current class of Congress are women?

The nonpartisan group Political Parity released a study explaining the roadblocks that the women who did decide to run for office faced. Lake Research and Chesapeake Beach Consulting surveyed state legislators, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) interviewed many candidates -- future, failed and victorious.

One of the biggest barriers that IWPR President Heidi Hartmann thinks the report reveals, is that female candidates often don't have access to the same networks that men do when running for office -- or at least aren't trained to network in the same way.

"Women have plenty of access to gender-neutral training from the local party apparatus," Hartmann says. "They get plenty of training that is basically, 'You should run! Get inspired! You should run!' That's not what these women need. They've already been inspired! They need specific help, like introductions to these big donors."

Hartmann brought up money as one of the biggest problems facing female candidates. She noted it is an especially vexing problem when it comes to women at the state level looking to graduate to higher office. "The state legislature is considered a farm team for Congress," she says. "It does not seem to be as good of a farm team for women as is it for men."

"Especially after Citizens United," the case which led to the Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited political expenditure by individuals, corporations and groups, "women really need a national network in order to make a convincing run," she says.

The Political Parity researchers interviewed one over-40 congressional candidate who ran in a Southern state. When asked about how hard it was to develop these networks, she said,

It’s like a boy’s club. But ...if a woman were to go out there and be as good as the boys or the guys and try to cut deals, especially in small communities, or especially conservative communities, her reputation would be marked. It would... make her look like, “oh. She’s a bar hopper.”...But the men can sit there in the bars and make their deals. And, yet, I can’t go out to the bars and network with some of the guys the way they’re able to do it. I couldn’t-- I didn’t fit that mold. I wasn’t able to do that. It was those inner circles with the men.”

Organizations helping women candidates overcome these obstacles have become fixtures in American politics in the past few years. Emily's List, which campaigns for pro-choice Democratic women, has been around since 1985. Earlier this year, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte started RIGHTNow Women PAC, which seeks to provide financial support for female Republican candidates. Winning Women, a committee spearheaded by conservative mega-donor Paul Singer, was formed in February to help Republican women in House races.

Once you get women to run for higher office, there is a network to give them the resources to be a competitive candidate. But getting state and local officials interested in running for higher office has been difficult, almost as difficult as getting women to run in the first place.

Women who run for higher office see their personal lives subjected to national discussion, as Wehby saw last week. They face long hours both on the campaign trail and in office; mothers often wait until their children are older before running in the first place, which leaves far less time to achieve the highest reaches of American politics (see Hillary Clinton). There are the stereotypes. One woman interviewed in the report said, "Women have to be very careful that they don’t cross, with all due respect, the ‘b*tch line ’ That if they are too hard they’re a b*tch ... That’s just the way it is ... You want to be tough but you don’t want to be shrill because there’s a different way that people look at it ”

Even when they do decide to run for local or state office, many women decide not to go through with it again for reelection.

"When I talk to local elected candidates, so many are not interested in running for higher office," Wellford says. "And they are already so far ahead of the game! They tell me they would never run for Congress, listing the same reasons you hear why people don't run in the first place."

Those seven women that have already seen success in Senate primaries are a great sign of how effective female candidates and the groups and people who support them can be. However, the structural barriers further down the rungs, where such support grows more scarce, still loom.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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