RICHMOND — Kelly Fowler's daughter was born the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, but this year's birthday was a downer. Fowler and her daughter, Tessa Anne, had been enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporters, and they couldn't bear to see President Trump sworn in on her big day.
Fowler is now seeking to become the Democratic candidate for her House of Delegates race in Virginia Beach, where she will go up against Republican incumbent Ron Villanueva, who also faces a primary challenger, in House District 21.
That makes Fowler part of a wave of female candidates in this year’s elections for 100 House seats.
With primary elections coming on June 13, 61 women are seeking a seat in the Virginia legislature — about 30 percent of the field.
The overall crop of 206 candidates is far bigger than usual, and the number of women may be a record. The 50 women running as Democrats are the most for that party in at least a decade and probably ever — up from 27 who filed in 2015, according to the state party. Republicans are fielding 10 female candidates, and one woman is running as an independent.
“I think what you’re seeing here is the Trump effect,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington and a longtime Virginia election watcher who said he can’t remember seeing so many women on the ballot. “There are so many people frustrated in Virginia with Trump, and that’s generating a lot more candidates as well as more women candidates than we’ve seen in recent cycles.”
In a recent poll by The Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University, only 36 percent of Virginia residents said they approve of Trump's performance as president. Among women, the results were even worse — 29 percent said they approve of Trump and only 17 percent said they strongly approve. Two-thirds of women said they disapprove, and 61 percent strongly disapprove.
Partly as a result, women’s issues have featured prominently in this year’s race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Both of the party’s candidates — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello — have campaigned on promising to be a “brick wall” against attempts by Trump or the Republican-controlled state legislature to roll back access to abortion or otherwise restrict women’s health issues.
But it’s the outpouring of interest from female candidates that best captures the spirit of the moment, said Stephanie Schriock, president of the women’s political group Emily’s List.
“I think there’s been a real empowerment of women to step up and want their voices heard in all aspects of society, and that particularly means elective office,” Schriock said. “There are many reasons — one clearly is the election of Donald Trump and what that means to a lot of women in their gut who say, ‘Wait a minute, if that can happen, I’ve got to take charge and get involved myself.’ ”
Emily’s List waded into the Virginia races Tuesday, endorsing Fowler and six other House candidates, including Danica Roem in House District 13 in Prince William County. She would be the first transgender person elected to the General Assembly. All of the seven are Democrats.
The national group, which also has endorsed Susan Platt for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, promises to bring attention and fundraising power to their campaigns. The others on their slate are Hala Ayala in HD51 in Prince William; Jennifer Carroll Foy in HD2 in Prince William; Wendy Gooditis in HD10 in Loudoun; Kathleen Murphy in HD34 in Fairfax; and Cheryl Turpin in HD85 in Virginia Beach.
Of the 61 women running for office in the Virginia House primaries, 12 are Democratic incumbents and four are Republican incumbents.
Many Virginia incumbents go years without challengers, and as districts have become more polarized, Democrats have sometimes struggled to field challengers in very red parts of the state. Not this year, though: All but 16 House races feature candidates from both parties, and women account for more than half of all challengers seeking seats held by Republicans.
At least four contested races feature only women, but that number could rise once the general election candidates are selected. And there were actually five more women candidates who have already been winnowed out in districts that used a nominating process.
“The Trump effect might have been a good thing in the long run,” Fowler said. “Everyone is awake and paying attention and taking a stand.”
But even with the surge of interest from women, Virginia still has a long way to go for gender parity in the state legislature. There were 17 women among the 100 members of the House of Delegates in the most recent session. Factoring in the Senate, which is not up for reelection this year and features 10 women among its 40 members, Virginia’s General Assembly is about 19 percent female.
That's below this year's average of about 25 percent for statehouses across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vermont, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona all lead the way with legislatures that are about 39 percent women.
Of course, women make up more than half of the population they represent.