This year, Democrats in Michigan have done something unprecedented. They have selected women to be their standard-bearers for every statewide office on the November ballot: governor, U.S. senator, attorney general and secretary of state.
Which is not such a big deal, insists former state senator Gretchen Whitmer, who won her gubernatorial primary Tuesday with more votes than her two male opponents combined.
“The makeup of this ticket is not something that I had in mind when I jumped into the race,” Whitmer told me. “When I’m on the campaign trail, I’m focused on issues that impact families and impact business people, the cleanliness of our water, or the safety of our roads, or expanding health care. These are issues that they don’t have gender. They’re issues about fundamentals that our leaders have failed us on in Michigan.”
Yet there is no denying that something is going on out there.
With Tuesday night’s primary results in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington, records have been set for the number of women winning major-party nominations for governor (11) and the House (185), according to a tally by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
Both those numbers seem sure to grow, given that there are still 17 women running for governor and 94 for the House in states that have not yet held their primaries.
This pink wave is also a blue one. As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman points out, female House candidates so far have won an astounding 71 percent of Democratic primaries in which there is no incumbent and they are running against at least one man. For Republican women, that figure is only 35 percent.
Two things help explain the trend: a burst of female political activism that followed the 2016 election of President Trump and a gender gap that is likely to be significantly larger than anything we have seen before.
But gender disparity in voter preferences is double-edged. While women in an April poll by the Pew Research Center said they were more likely to favor Democratic candidates by 14 percentage points, men were nearly equally inclined for Republicans, by 13 percentage points.
That presents a tricky balancing act for these Democratic women candidates as they head into the general election.
Having so many female candidates on the ballot “accentuates the advantages, but also the vulnerabilities” that women traditionally have had, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Women running for office are naturally presumed to be an antidote to the status quo, but they face lingering doubts, including whether they are temperamentally suited for executive office and whether they are as competent as men at handling the economy.
While Whitmer insists that her gender is only incidental to her candidacy, that is not the case for lawyer Dana Nessel, who became Michigan’s de facto Democratic nominee for state attorney general when she won a tough fight for the party’s endorsement at its April convention.
Last fall, with sexual-abuse scandals dominating the headlines, Nessel created a viral sensation with an ad in which she asked: “When you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
Nessel shrugs off concerns, which she has frequently heard, that an all-female ticket may be a hard sell with Michigan voters. “It may be the only way we can win,” she insists. “This presents us with the strongest avenue for victory in November.”
Whitmer, meanwhile, has yet to pick a running mate, and says she has both men and women under consideration for lieutenant governor. “I’m going to take my time and make sure that I make a decision that is good for me as a governor,” she says.
The closest precedent to Michigan’s all-female statewide ticket may be what happened in Arizona in 1998, when women were elected to each of its top five state government offices. Four were Republicans, one a Democrat.
Back then, no one saw it coming. “It was kind of like we woke up the day after the election, and somebody noticed, hey, they’re all women,” recalls Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who became Arizona’s attorney general that year and was elected governor in 2002. “It didn’t seem like that big a deal. It just kind of happened.”
That turned out to be a fluke, but maybe 2018 will mark the start of something different: a time when women running for office — and winning — seems like nothing out of the ordinary at all.