By Lauren Gambino
Every once in a while, a voter approaches Amy McGrath, a first-time candidate for Congress in Kentucky and a retired marines fighter pilot, to tell her they can’t support her. The reason? McGrath’s three young children need her at home.
“I always point out that the incumbent who serves in the seat has young children the same ages as mine,” McGrath said, adding: “I can’t imagine they would say that if I was a man.”
Exchanges like that are rare – especially in comparison with the number of women, moms and veterans who have embraced her campaign, she says – but they illustrate the challenges female candidates still face on the road to Washington, even as record numbers prepare to run.
McGrath, a Democrat who hopes to win a six-way primary on Tuesday, is part of a trailblazing crop of women running for Congress this year, especially for seats in the House.
There are 408 Democratic and Republican women still running for the House, compared with 167 in 2016 and 159 in 2014, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.
The wave of women running also have more diverse backgrounds and résumés. Many, like McGrath, are newcomers, spurred by the rage of losing a presidential election to a candidate with a history of berating women and emboldened by the #MeToo reckoning against sexual assault and workplace harassment.
“For years, women have had to walk this fine line between being capable and being likable,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, chief executive and co-founder of She Should Run, a non-partisan organization that seeks to increase the number of women in elective office. “But with this massive groundswell we’re seeing women from all backgrounds run as themselves.”
At least two women running for governor – Kelda Roys in Wisconsin and Krish Vignarajah in Maryland – have run ads featuring them breastfeeding while discussing their political platforms. Nadia Hashimi, running for Congress in Maryland, promised voters less “mansplaining”. And Sol Flores, who lost her bid for Congress in Illinois, shared her story of sexual abuse in a campaign ad, promising: “I’ll fight as hard for you in Congress as I did to protect myself.”
“It feels like we have this support system in women running across the country,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, a first-time Democratic candidate for Congress in New York.
This month, Grechen Shirley, the mother of two young children, wonapproval from the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds for childcare. Two dozen members of Congress and Hillary Clinton sent letters of support for her request.
“This ruling will allow more women – and men – to run for office,” she said, adding: “Our babysitter is a staff member in the same way that our field director and finance manager are staff members.”
As women storm the ramparts of the Democratic party, female Republican candidates are fewer in number. Of the 408 women still running for the House, 305 are Democrats and 103 are Republicans, according to CAWP.
Even so, Republicans boast an impressive and unusually large field of female hopefuls, said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for Winning for Women, a new organization that aims to be the conservative counterweight to Emily’s List.
“Our goal is to build lasting momentum that’s not just contained to a year,” Bozek said. “We want to see a lot of ‘years of the woman’.”
She noted that the top two Republican fundraisers last quarter were women: Marsha Blackburn, running for Senate in Tennessee, and Martha McSally, running for Senate in Arizona. The only two women elected to Congress since Donald Trump took office have been Republicans: Karen Handel in Georgia and Debbie Lesko in Arizona.
Whatever happens in November, the quest for a more representative democracy will be far from realized. Women comprise 19% of the House and 23% of the Senate, shares that are unlikely to swing significantly. Female lawmakers currently serving are disproportionately Democratic and white.
“Let’s absolutely celebrate the women who are on the ballot but let’s also look at who’s not there,” Cutraro said, noting a lack of Republicans and people of color. “This is just the beginning – we still have so much more work to do.”
The results of the early primaries show that women aren’t just running – they’re winning.
More than 50 women filed to run in Texas. Nearly half of the candidates who finished first in the Democratic primaries there were women, including two Latinas who are likely to head to Congress in November. In Nebraska, Kara Eastman bested a former congressman to win a primary to represent a congressional district in Omaha. Meanwhile, the Democrat Jane Raybould will face off against the Republican senator Deb Fischer in one of several general election races featuring or likely to feature two women.
Pennsylvania, a state with an all-male congressional delegation of 20, stands out as a particularly bright spot. Last Tuesday, voters selected female candidates in seven primaries held in the state’s newly redrawn congressional map, three in districts favorable to Democrats.
But for all the enthusiasm and energy, political observers warn it is too early to declare 2018 a “year of the woman”.
“We’re really hopeful that we’ll see gains for women in November,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at CAWP. “But we’re being careful about the extent to which this wave of women running will translate into a tsunami of women winning in November.”
The route to Washington is complicated by several factors, Dittmar said. More Democratic men are running, too, which means primary races are crowded. Plenty of Democratic women are running in the same districts as each other, such as in Texas, where a handful of races featured as many as three female candidates. This means that women will be eliminated in the primaries.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for women this election cycle is that many are running against incumbents, who almost always win re-election. More than half of the female candidates running for House and Senate hope to unseat sitting members of Congress.
Ten states have held primaries so far. Of the 125 women running for the House in those races, nearly half – 60 – have won, according to CAWP. But a significant number of Democratic primary winners will go on to face incumbents in safely Republican districts.
Even if 2018 falls short of being a historic “year of the woman”, the wave of female candidates has already changed attitudes to running, organizers say.
For decades, organizations like Emily’s List, the fundraising juggernaut dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, have tried to narrow a so-called ambition gap by encouraging women to run for office and providing the resources to do it. Traditionally, those conversations require a degree of coaxing. But since the 2016 election, the phones have been ringing with women putting themselves forward.
“What’s so inspiring is that we have so many women who have crossed over that first obstacle: desire to run,” Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, told reporters at the group’s national conference earlier this month. “Once that seed is planted, it doesn’t stop growing.”