But early statistics indicate that women are losing primaries at least at the same rate as they're winning them. And some of the women who won their primaries Tuesday face steep odds in their general election.
So yes, a record number of women are running, but will they win in significant enough numbers to close the extreme gender gap in politics?
Probably not, experts say. Debbie Walsh and Kelly Dittmar with the Center of American Women and Politics explained in a recent HuffPost column and to The Fix that all these new female candidates are, for a variety of reasons, setting themselves up to lose in greater numbers than they might win. But that doesn’t mean women should stop running, and even if they lose, it doesn't mean we should discount the more incremental changes their candidacies are bringing to the U.S. political system.
Women are often challenging incumbents, who win 80 percent of the time, or are running in districts or states where they will probably lose the general election. On Tuesday, former state representative Paulette Jordan became the first woman in Idaho to win the Democratic nomination for governor, but she will have an uphill battle to become governor in a red state.
With so few competitive seats, women also are running against one another. And that increases the number of women who will lose. More women lost in a single House primary Tuesday than won in all of Pennsylvania's House primaries. In the outer Philadelphia suburbs, Democrat Mary Scanlon beat six other women Tuesday to go on to the general election.
Republican women — a minority within a minority — are especially vulnerable to losing the expectations game. Many of them are running in empty seats vacated by a record number of retiring, mostly male House Republicans. It's a great pickup opportunity for women, but a ton of male candidates also jump into these races.
“I think it’s blown out of proportion,” said Julie Conway, who runs a super PAC dedicated to getting Republican women elected. “It’s getting us set up for failure. You say, 'Oh, we have so many candidates running, and only x percent won.' It’s going to be depressing if you look at it like that.”
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But there's evidence that, win or lose, these female candidates are changing the way the political game is played.
The game contains a thick glass ceiling, Dittmar wrote for the blog Gender Watch 2018.
Research consistently shows women need to come across as likable to get voters to choose them, whereas male candidates do not. They must strike a delicate balance on how to portray having (or not having) a family in a way men don't have to. Hillary Clinton, I wrote, wasn't necessarily wrong when she said “misogyny played a role” in her election loss.
Female candidates in 2018 are punching through those norms. Dittmar cites women such as Democratic congressional candidate Sol Flores in Chicago, who campaigned on recovering from sexual abuse, as a uniquely female way to demonstrate toughness. (She lost, but her ad, below, is notable.)
And here's a big change: Experts say women are actually running without being prodded to.
Research shows that women win at the same rate as men, but they have to be convinced they are qualified more often than men do. But earlier this year, women were flooding partisan and nonpartisan training camps for office runs. Many of them actually signed up.
Minnesota state Sen. Carla Nelson (R) is running in a primary for a rural district that is a top pickup for Republicans after saying no to being recruited in 2014 and 2016. This year, she said, “I was compelled to run. ... I'm just the best candidate to capture the seat.”
Women-in-politics experts say that Donald Trump's election over the first major-party female presidential candidate in U.S. history may have, paradoxically, motivated more women to pursue politics, especially on the left.
“I think we're busier with Hillary Clinton losing than if she had won,” Walsh said. “An awful lot of these women weren't recruited. An awful lot woke up one morning, turned on the TV and saw who was president of the United States, and they decided they needed to run for office.”
Walsh said women being willing to enter the political world is a major paradigm shift, and one that's happening no matter how many women win in this election cycle.