Amy McGrath, a former U.S. Marine and a Democratic congressional candidate in Kentucky, speaks during a conference in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 6. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

The 2018 elections differ from previous midterms in so many ways. And one, at least, is a good sign for democracy: Many more people are running for office this time around.

Elections are the linchpin of representative government — but only if there’s actual competition among candidates. This year’s midterms are being more vigorously contested than those in the past, mostly because more Democratic women are running for office, particularly in the South.

More candidates running for state legislature

As Steven Rogers noted early in this year’s primary season, the number of candidates is up, especially in elections for state legislatures. Now that the summer primary season has ended, we can revisit Rogers’s preview of the general election with some firm data.

We calculated the rate at which offices go uncontested, comparing it with previous elections. When only one candidate’s name appears on the ballot, with no one running against him or her, that’s an uncontested seat. (For the few states that use multi-member districts, we consider a race uncontested if the number of candidates is not higher than the number of seats up for grabs.)

Nearly all U.S. House seats have been contested in recent years, so this year’s 4 percent uncontested rate isn’t big news. But some key aspects of these contests are different in 2018. Building on a trend, Democrats are challenging Republican incumbents far more often than Republicans are challenging Democratic incumbents. Among the 435 House seats, Democrats are running in 428 while Republicans are running in only 393. And many more of the nominees are female this time around, mainly as Democrats.

Numbers have jumped more dramatically in state legislative elections. As we have noted elsewhere, state legislative seats are usually far more likely to go uncontested. But 2018 has clearly interrupted that trend.

In states with lower-house elections, only 27 percent of the seats aren’t contested this year. Compare that to the rate in 2014, when 35 percent of state lower-house races were uncontested. Yes, that’s a much higher rate of unchallenged seats than we’ve seen for Congress — but this year’s uncontested rate for state legislatures is the lowest in 46 years.


Change in the South

The South was a different place politically the last time so many seats were contested. In the 50 years since, the South transformed from a Democratic stronghold to Republican region. As Adam Myers has argued, this has resulted in more Republican candidates contesting Democratic seats while seats with the strongest partisan leanings were actually contested less often.

To be sure, incumbents in the South are still much more likely to run unopposed than incumbents elsewhere. States like Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina continue to see over half their state legislators run unchallenged. But in just two years the uncontested rate in southern legislatures has dropped by almost 20 percentage points, from 59 percent to 40 percent.

Outside the South, Democrats are contesting more state legislative seats than in the past. The ratio between the number of Democratic and Republican candidates on ballot outside the South is 1.15 to 1, meaning that for every 100 Republicans running for a state legislature, 115 Democrats are doing so — giving local Democrats a slight edge. And despite the fact that the South is dominated by the GOP, there are just as many Democrats running as there are Republicans running, evening the ratio to a perfect 1:1.

In fact, in five states — California, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio — there’s a Democrat running for every seat, sometimes unopposed. But only in Michigan are Republicans running in every state house district. Republicans do come close in North Carolina and in some of the sparsely populated Western states like Utah, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming, where Democrats have entered at low rates. If these patterns persist, some parts of the South could become more competitive than these areas of the West.

Many more women are on the ballot

Women are the ones running against incumbents in many 2018 races. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, 3,387 female candidates are running for state legislature in 2018. That’s a jump from the pattern over the previous 20 years, in which the number of female state house candidates has ranged from 2,220 to 2,649. To put it another way, about 1,000 more women are running for state legislatures in 2018 than has been the norm over the past two decades. And because the public is ready — even eager — to support women this year, a large share are likely to win election.

For instance, between 2000 and 2016, the average number of women running for the Georgia House of Representative was 68. This year that’s nearly doubled to 121, 91 of whom are Democrats. In Florida 85 women are running for the lower house, 30 more than the state’s average. Three-fourths of the female candidates are Democrats.

Representative government is built on the idea that, in every election, citizens get to choose who will represent them. But as the adage goes, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Thanks to a bumper crop of Democratic and female candidates running for state legislature this year, voters in 2018 will have more choices than they have in over a generation.

Barry Burden (@bcburden) is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rochelle Snyder is a graduate student in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.