Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, a candidate in one of Pennsylvania congressional primaries on Tuesday, watched results from four primaries roll in a week ago with a smile on her face, even though she wasn’t on the ballot.
Last Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana were particularly good for women, according to the data from the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. Seventy-one percent of Democratic women candidates won their primary bids for office and women are now set to be 33% of all major party nominees for the House from the four states.
This week, first-time candidate Corbin-Johnson is attempting to emerge from a four-way Democratic primary for a shot at becoming the first woman to represent Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District. The sight of other women doing well, many with vastly different backgrounds than herself, was enough to give the first-time candidate a burst of energy. The Pennsylvania hopeful said she was texting other women candidates last Tuesday night as woman after woman moved onto the general election in the four states.
“I have been following these different primaries and trying to get my support from afar,” she said. “I don’t know these women personally, but I am sure they have been giving their all to this race because I know I am. That is what I am doing here, and I have to imagine they are doing the same.”
The 2018 midterms have been defined by the surge of interest up and down the ballot by women candidates, a boost that corresponds with the #MeToo movement, an ongoing national focus on sexual harassment and representation in places of power. The news is a welcome sign for groups like EMILY’s List, a Democratic organization that helps train and fund female Democratic candidates that saw a massive boost in interest after the 2016 campaign.
For women candidates, many of them seeking elected office for the first time, the success of women in early primary states has provided them with confidence that their sometimes-unexpected runs aren’t so far-fetched.
“For me, it is heartening. It is validating,” said Chrissy Houlahan, a first-time candidate running to represent Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District in the House. “It feels like I am part of a posse of people who have gotten into races for the right reasons.”
All of this sets the stage for the primaries on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, where 20 women are running, more than double the seven women who ran in 2016. These contests could tell political watchers a great deal about whether the surge in interest in running for office will mean more women actually in the halls of power next year.
“This will be a good test of this because it is not a state that women have done well historically,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers. “The state currently has no women in Congress – 18 representatives and two senators, zero women.”
Democrats, Dittmar said, have dominated the surge in interest, including in Pennsylvania, where 19 of the 20 women candidates are Democrats. This surge of Democratic women packing into crowded primaries amplifies what Pennsylvania saw in 2016, where of the women who ran, six were Democrats and one was a Republican.
But 2016 was not a successful year for women in Pennsylvania: Seven women ran, five made it passed the primaries (four Democrats and one Republican), and zero won in the general.
That’s a lesson that Corbin-Johnson have committed to her 2018 run.
“It’s time to shake up central Pennsylvania,” she said when asked about winning in November if she gets passed Tuesday. “The blue tsunami is coming to central Pennsylvania.”
A burst of energy
Democratic political operatives, many in a state of shock after the 2016 election, worried that Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump would have a deleterious effect on women running for office.
But in the days and weeks after Clinton’s loss the opposite happened, many women described an innate feeling that they needed to run for office.
“Women took a very different path,” Christina Reynolds, a top operative at EMILY’s List who worked on Clinton’s campaign, said.
The Democratic super PAC had 920 women reach out ahead of the 2016 election, a race that saw the first women to win a major party’s nomination for President.
In 2018, that number jumped by nearly 40 times: To date, 36,000 women have reached out to EMILY’s List about running for office, a jump that astounded the group.
A key catalyst for many of these women was the Women’s March, a gathering that brought hundreds of thousands of women to Washington, DC, the day after Trump’s inauguration. The march was a visual rebuke to the new President and a call to action for many of the women.
“I was in the first women’s march and I think that is where a lot of us realized that our voices were being silenced,” said Betsy Rader, Democrats’ nominee in Ohio to face Rep. Dave Joyce in November. Rader added that the march proved women “needed to step up our game and we needed our voice to be in Washington.”
Houlahan, who organized a trip to DC for four dozen women in 2017, told a similar story.
“That probably did seal the deal,” she said of the Women’s March. “In a million years I didn’t think I would be running for any office.”
The burst, from the women’s march and otherwise, was real.
So far, 476 women have filed to run for the House in 2018, according to Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, already surpassing the 272 who filed in 2016.
Now that so many women have stepped up to run, many are asking whether their gender is actually something helping their candidacy. Clinton has long said it does not and recently told an audience in Australia that people overly focus on women’s looks because “there is still a very large proportion of the population that is uneasy with women in positions of leadership.” Current candidates, though, are more hopeful.
“I certainly hope (it is),” Kathy Manning, a congressional candidate from North Carolina who will face Rep. Ted Budd in November, said with a laugh. “I have had some really interesting experiences. … I have had several men say to me, you know what, given the choice, I am always going to vote for a woman.”
She added: “That has been sort of surprising but also encouraging.”
But how big of a burst?
With more women stepping up to run this year, Democrats hope their House caucus in 2019 will have significantly more gender equality.
But that reality is that many of the women who have put their name on the ballot have done so in districts that tilt towards Republicans, meaning Democrats will need a significant wave election to win in places like York, Pennsylvania, and Greensboro, North Carolina.
But analyzing data collected by Rutgers University, it is clear that it’s far more likely that more women will enter the House in 2019.
In West Virginia not a single woman ran for a house seat in 2016. In the 2018 primaries, five ran and one Republican and two Democrats won. These three winners will go on to try and fill any of the three seats for West Virginia, all currently held by men.
Seventeen women ran in the Ohio primaries this year, 10 more than in 2016. Eleven women – 10 Democrats and one Republican – won their primaries and will move on to the general. Currently, women only hold three of those seats.
And in Indiana, 12 women ran in the primary this year compared to the eight who ran in 2016. Of the 12 who ran this year, five Democrats and two Republicans won their primary. There are currently two women representing Indiana, with the other seven seats held by men.