Until yesterday, only 17 of the 100 members of the Virginia House of Delegates were women. Now, the number will surge to nearly 30.
Women racked up victories across the country on Tuesday, and are being credited with the Democrats’ big night overall. It is a testament to the remarkable explosion of women candidates who have entered the political stage since Donald Trump was elected president one year ago.
The wave is likely to continue. In 2018, 40 women are already planning to run for governor. Dozens more are considering congressional and other statewide office bids. And Tuesday’s result has already become a rallying cry for activists seeking to draw even more women into the public square.
“This is huge,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the political group that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. “This is how we build momentum for 2018. Women are going to lead the way.”
It was a night of historic wins for women and minorities across the nation. In Helena, Mont., a refugee from Liberia became the first black mayor. Seattle elected its first female mayor in almost a century, and in Charlotte, a black woman won for the first time.
All of it revealed a dramatic election night fueled by opposite forces to those at work in 2016: A surging coalition of women, minorities and immigrants angered by Trump’s election and presidency — and eager for their voices to be heard in politics.
“I am stunned,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
It is not just the number of women running, but their success rate.
The Democrats’ new strength in the Virginia legislature — moving up from 34 seats to at least 49 — was build on a strikingly diverse range of candidates, including a woman who immigrated from Peru, a female refugee from Vietnam, an openly gay woman and a transgender woman. Many of the ousted Republicans were white men who had held office for years.
With four races still too close to call, 11 of the 15 Democratic challengers who won in districts held by Republicans were women. Two of victors will be the first Hispanic women to serve in the House of Delegates.
In 2016, Emily’s List had discussions with a record 920 women interested in running for office, part of what was called the “Hillary bump.” Since that election, nearly 20,800 women have expressed an interest in running for office, according to its own tally.
Many of the newly elected women heading to the statehouse had never run for office before.
In New Jersey, Ashley Bennett, a first-time candidate and hospital employee, defeated Republican John Carman for a seat on the Atlantic County board. Carman had shared a meme on Facebook during January’s Women’s March in Washington asking whether the protest would be “over in time for them to cook dinner.” Bennett, outraged, decided to run — and won.
Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender and former foster mother gave birth to premature twins during her campaign for the Virginia House. She won an open seat in the Washington suburbs by 26 points.
“The fear and anger and frustration” she felt after Trump’s victory pushed her to run, she said. She also was angry about what she considered the “anti-women” proposals coming from the legislature, such as a bill that would have made the anniversary of Roe v. Wade a day of mourning in the state. “Such a waste of time and energy,” she said.
“The slow trot to gender equity sprinted a solid half-mile last night,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Many Democratic groups, such as the Latino Victory Fund, have put new focus on state legislative races, adding funding and staff to help candidates.
Elizabeth Guzman, an immigrant from Peru who ran for a state House seat in what had long been the Republican-leaning outer suburbs of Washington, trounced Scott Lingamfelter, a retired Army colonel who had served since 2002.
Guzman campaigned as an immigrant who like so many others had juggled several jobs to pay for her apartment and education. She ran, she said, “to protect the American Dream” and because she was saddened to hear children say that the president of the United States “does not like people who speak Spanish.”
Hala Ayala, a single mom who had helped organize buses to go to the Women’s March, beat an incumbent Republican who had run unopposed in 2015. Her district, near Manassas has grown increasingly ethnically diverse.
“I built my campaign on the promise of fair and equal representation of our community in all of its wonderful diversity,” Ayala said in her victory statement.
Democrats were far more aggressive at fielding candidates this year. In the past, many GOP incumbents had gone unchallenged.
In 2013, for instance, Democrats fielded candidates in only 67 House races, compared to 88 in 2017, Skelley said. “There was a noticeable uptick this year,” he said — and notable success by women.
Lawless, from American University, said the lesson from Virginia, where so many usually safe incumbents lost, is to mount more challenges and not merely go for open seats.
In the four Virginia races still contested as of Wednesday evening, two of the Democratic candidates are African American men. A third, Shelly Simonds, is a school board member from southeastern Virginia who trailed the incumbent Republican by 12 votes.
Women voters were key in Ralph Northam’s resounding gubernatorial victory. The Democratic candidate won women by a 61 to 39 percent margin. Among black women, he won against Republican Ed Gillespie by 91 to 8 percent, according to exit polls.
“It’s pretty simple. We have had a very divisive president, and women in particular are fed up,” Schiock said. “They got mad and they got active.”
Kathy Tran, who was a baby when she and her parents fled Vietnam in a boat, won an open seat in the Washington suburbs against Republican Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an immigrant from Ecuador.
Danica Roem, a journalist who has written for local newspapers and sings in a rock band, will be the first openly transgender person to serve in the Virginia legislature. She unseated Robert Marshall, 73, who advocated against same-sex marriage, allowing gay people in military and other issues that the LBGT community supported. He has served since 1992.
Kelly Fowler, a former schoolteacher and real estate agent who won a Republican-held seat in Virginia Beach, is the granddaughter of immigrants from the Philippines.
Lawless said that “when Democrats have a good night, women do well.” But that means that in the future, if Republicans have an upswing, these gains may not be permanent, she said.
Lawless’s research has found that women continue to show more reluctance than men to run for office — and to doubt their qualifications. One big difference, she said, is the effort that the Democratic Party is putting into recruiting more women to run.
“That can mitigate your doubts substantially,” she said.