Nowhere is there a stronger gender disparity in U.S. politics than in governor’s mansions. Right now there are a grand total of six female governors.
Tuesday may go down as a day that helps change that dismal number. Primary voters in 2018 just set a record for nominating women to run for governor in either major party, according to data collected by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).
Democratic voters nominated women for the governor’s mansion in Michigan and Kansas, bringing the total number of female nominees for governors to 11.
And with a number of primaries outstanding, women have the potential to smash the record they just set: There are 16 more female candidates still competing in gubernatorial primaries this year, from Hawaii to Florida, and in Wisconsin, Alaska and New York.
This has been a surprisingly hard record to break. CAWP says the previous record for female gubernatorial nominees was 10, which was set in 1994 and has been matched a couple of times since.
Not all the female candidates in the remaining primaries are likely to win, and not all the female nominees are likely to win in November. Of the 11 major-party nominees so far, roughly eight or nine are ranked by election analysts as favored to win or in competitive races.
But experts say just having more women run for office can narrow a subtler gender gap: how voters put different expectations on female candidates than they do male candidates. Research shows that voters require a women to come across as likable, which is not a qualification voters demand in male candidates. Female politicians say the focus on what they wear, how they come across as assertive or not, and how they present their family (or lack of children) is a magnified concern for them. Hillary Clinton, I wrote shortly after the election, wasn’t necessarily wrong when she said “misogyny played a role” in her election loss.
More women in the field, running their own unique campaigns, can help reframe what voters expect from women, says Kelly Dittmar of CAWP.
A notable trend this year is that half of Democrats' female nominees for governor — four out of eight — are women of color. That’s a big deal because a Democratic woman of color has never served as governor. (Right now outgoing New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez, a Republican, is the only woman of color leading a state.)
Stacey Abrams, who is trying to be the first black female governor of any state, has gotten a lot of headlines for potentially making the Georgia governor’s race competitive.
But in New Mexico, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina, is currently the most favored to break the Democratic Party’s gender/race ceiling. New Mexico is Democrats' best pickup opportunity in 2018. In May, former state representative Paulette Jordan became the first woman in Idaho to win the Democratic nomination for governor. She’s now trying to be the first Native American female governor but has an uphill battle in a red state.
And all this brings us to the point of the story: Will there actually be more female governors next year than there are now? Or than there ever have been? The record in U.S. politics is nine female governors serving at once. So there are 11 nominees right now, with the potential to add to that. Ten of those women would need to win in November.
And then there’s this broader question: Is 10 women serving as governor something to celebrate? It’s a step forward on paper, but as Dittmar points out, reaching that milestone would still keep women at 20 percent of all governors — which is exactly the threshold they’ve been stuck at in Congress for a while now.