‘Pink Wave’ May Give More Women a Seat at the Table in State Legislatures

The Nevada state capitol building in Carson City.

The Nevada state capitol building in Carson City. Shutterstock


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“Not only are women motivated to run, they are running,” according to Lindsay Crete, deputy campaign communications director for state and local races at EMILY’s List.

A record-breaking number of women are running for office at all levels of government, from local to federal, from school board to city council, from statehouse to Congress. It’s been called the “year of the woman” and a “pink wave,” and nowhere is the trend more noteworthy than in state legislature races, a level of government where women have been historically underrepresented.

Women comprise a little more than half of the national population but hold just one in four state legislative seats, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. This year, 3,386 women—nearly twice the number of current incumbent female state legislators—are running for state office, a 28 percent increase from the 2016 election cycle. The trend is tilted toward Democratic candidates, who make up 70 percent of the women who will appear on the ballot in the general election.  

The tide of women candidates could have historical implications in Nevada, a purple state that swung for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The state legislature there, currently run by a Democratic majority, could become the first female-majority statehouse in history, depending on election outcomes in November.

“Not only are women motivated to run, they are running,” said Lindsay Crete, deputy campaign communications director for state and local races at EMILY’s List, a national political action committee that supports and endorses pro-choice, Democrat candidates for office. “We’ve more than tripled our staff working on state and local races, and that’s largely because of the sheer number of women contacting us either hoping to run for office themselves or to help someone else run.”

In the entire 2016 election cycle, 920 women contacted EMILY’s List for information about running for public office, Crete said. In the 2018 cycle so far, the organization has heard from more than 40,000 women.

There are numerous reasons for the uptick. Education and health care have been hot-button issues for EMILY’s List candidates, Crete said.

Nationwide, broader motivations include the #MeToo movement, the hyper-partisan divide over policies put forth by the Trump administration, and a general increasing awareness of the challenges that women face in the workplace as well as in the political arena, said Brandon Lenoir, professor of political science and political communication at High Point University in North Carolina.

“The #MeToo movement and the coverage it received brought to light the inequality and the different treatment that women are facing,” Lenoir said. “The only way to change it is to have a seat at the table, and that’s why more women are throwing their hat into the ring to run for office.”

Nationwide, just 1,879 of 7,383 state legislators are women. Some states lag far behind in equitable gender representation, with five (Wyoming, Oklahoma, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Mississippi) boasting legislative bodies with fewer than 15 percent women in office.

State houses in Arizona and Vermont currently are 40 percent women, the highest percentage in the country. The Nevada Legislature, made up of an Assembly and Senate, is just behind (38.1 percent of its 63 seats are held by women), but could leapfrog to the lead this year.  

Women candidates there would need to win a total of 32 seats in November to capture a majority. Twenty-seven races are likely victories for female candidates, but the remaining six are less clear, according to an analysis by the Reno Gazette Journal.

Among the seats in play is Assembly District 37, where first-time Democratic candidate Shea Backus will face incumbent Republican Jim Marchant. Backus, an attorney, is endorsed by EMILY’s List and advanced to the general election after winning more than 54 percent of the vote in a three-candidate Democratic primary in June.

Backus, a third-generation Nevadan, had been politically active in the past, mostly by canvassing for Democratic candidates. During the 2016 election cycle, she knocked on doors for Hillary Clinton and, that August, mourned the death of former Nevada First Lady Bonnie Bryan, a fierce advocate for public education. Bryan’s legacy coupled with Clinton’s loss sparked an interest in running for office, Backus said.

“I wanted to see that first woman president, and when it didn’t happen I said things like, ‘I’ll never see a woman president in my lifetime,’” she said. “It wasn’t like the election happened in 2016 and I said, ‘OK, I’m running.’ The ball was kind of rolling at that point. But if she had won, I don’t know if I would have been as motivated.”

Like she did as a canvasser for other candidates, Backus walks the streets of her district, knocking on doors and talking to voters about education, health care and clean energy. Men who identify as Democrats are the quickest to tell her they’ll be voting for female candidates in November, while women tend to be more focused on specific issues.

That trend echoes one of the lessons of the 2016 presidential election, Lenoir said—that sex alone does not guarantee political victory.

“Women are not a monolithic group, and we saw that especially with Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Had women in unison voted for Hillary Clinton, she would be president of the United States. They aren’t just voting for women because there’s a female on the ballot.”

But women in Nevada, particularly older women, do tend to acknowledge the historic nature of the slate of candidates, Backus said.

“Women like to take their time and do their research, but I think a lot of women, especially the older women, are more excited about the number of women running,” she said. “I’m 43, and I would say that women my age and younger don’t appreciate on the same level the significance or the historic importance, because we’ve had such great opportunities afforded to us over the years.”

Whether Nevada elects a female-majority legislature will ultimately depend on voter turnout. Midterm elections tend to serve as a referendum on the ruling party, in this case President Trump and the Republicans, and despite the historic number of women running for office, this year is likely to be no different, Lenoir said.

“The candidate pool is shifting, but the electorate itself hasn’t shifted a whole lot. The basic elements as to why somebody’s going to turn out to vote ring pretty consistent today as they did four, 10 or 12 years ago,” he said. “The higher-educated people tend to vote in high numbers. Women actually make up a higher percentage of the voting population, so that bodes well for female candidates.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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