Stacey Abrams gained national prominence this year when she became the first African American woman to win a major party nomination for governor. If she wins in November, she will make history once more. But Georgia’s Democratic nominee is not the only woman who is breaking barriers at the gubernatorial level.
In fact, the field of female candidates for governor in the 2018 election cycle is unprecedented in its diversity.
This year, 36 states will hold elections for governor. Out of a total of 14 women who have won their primary so far, five gubernatorial nominees are women of color. In addition to Abrams, there is Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) in New Mexico, who was the first Latina woman elected to Congress from the state; Paulette Jordan (D) in Idaho, who would become the first Native American governor if elected; Hawaii Republican Andria Tupola, who is of Samoan and Native Hawaiian descent; and Lupe Valdez (D) in Texas.
The cohort also includes notable LGBTQ candidates Christine Hallquist in Vermont (D), who made history as the first transgender person to ever earn a major party nomination for governor, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who was the first LGBTQ person to ever be elected governor and is now running for reelection.
Valdez’s candidacy is historic on both counts: She is Texas’s first Latina candidate for governor as well its first openly gay one.
“We haven’t seen this diversity at the gubernatorial level for women before,” said Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics, which has been tracking the number of women running for office in 2018 and cataloguing notable milestones for female candidates.
There are more female candidates running for governor overall in 2018 than in 2016; 61 women filed to run for governor in this cycle, compared with six in 2016, though there are many more governor’s mansions up for grabs in 2018 than 2016. Women are running at unprecedented numbers for the U.S. House and Senate this year, as well.
“This political climate has mobilized people. They are tired of the status quo,” said Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University.
Efforts to diversify candidate fields are also paying off this year. “Political organizations that are created by and for women of color are doing the groundwork to recruit and support diverse candidates,” said Christina Bejarano, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
It is important to note, though, that female candidates are still a small fraction of the contenders for governor this year: Of the 58 current major party nominees, including incumbents, 14 are women. This is, clearly, nowhere near parity.
But that is why these candidacies could be so significant.
“The way government is right now, it’s not representative of the American public,” said Sean Meloy, senior policy director at Victory Fund, a nonpartisan organization that supports LGBTQ candidates. These candidates’ “voices are needed in order to create policies that reflect these communities,” he said.
Having women like Abrams or Valdez at the top of the ticket could help challenge misconceptions about diverse candidates’ electability or their role in U.S. politics.
“This, hopefully, should be a wake-up call for the political parties,” Brown said. “First of all, to see women of color as a viable candidate. Not just a whim, not a fluke, not someone who has an idea that might push the party to the left or the right, but that they actually have views that should be center or mainstream.”
Thus far, the non-incumbent women have proved only that they can win primaries.
Hallquist, Jordan, Tupola and Valdez are not favored to win their elections, according to a Washington Post tracker. However, Abrams’s race in Georgia is considered competitive. The Cook Political Report rates Brown’s reelection race as leaning Democratic.
If any of these women lose, it probably won’t have to do with their identities. Several are running as Democrats in states whose races lean Republican or vice versa, Dittmar said. Every LGBTQ candidate that has been nominated for governor so far is running as a Democrat, and all of the women of color, with the exception of Tupola, are Democrats.
Strong incumbents are also an obstacle for challengers. For instance, Vermont’s popular Republican Gov. Phil Scott is favored to win in November over Hallquist, even though Hillary Clinton carried the state in 2016. Tupola faces an uphill battle to unseat Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) in a state dominated by Democrats.
Even if they do not win, their candidacies could have an impact on the way issues are discussed and on future elections.
“[They] are broadening our political models for candidates and their campaigns,” Bejarano said. “They are breaking the mold.”