Women candidates score in the primaries, but with an asterisk

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Surrounded by her family, Liz Watson, Democratic candidate for Indiana’s Ninth District seat in the House of Representatives, meets applause from supporters in Bloomington after winning the primary. (Photo: Chris Howell/The Herald-Times via AP)

Bolstered by the Women’s March and emboldened by the #MeToo movement, women candidates were notably successful in Tuesday’s primary races for the House of Representatives. But a close analysis of the results suggests that most of their wins came in districts in which they will be the likely underdogs in November.

Of the 43 women running for the House in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia on May 8, 27 of them — or 62.8 percent — won their primary bids. Democratic women did better than Republican women; 22 of the 31 Democratic women were victorious (71 percent) compared with 5 of the 12 Republican women (41.7). That is a higher success rate for Democratic women that in any election in the past decade, although Republican women have won primaries at these rates in other years.

Only two women ran in Senate primaries — Democrat Paula Swearingen in West Virginia and Republican Melissa Ackison in Ohio — and both lost.

The increase in the number of women on the ballot in the four states is consistent with a national trend toward more women seeking office. But while those who study women and politics say the influx of women is historic, they warn that getting a cohort of challengers through the primaries doesn’t guarantee a change in the gender makeup of Congress and statehouses after November.

The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, in partnership with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, analyzed the results in relation to the makeup of the electorate in those districts. Using the Cook Political Report rankings of districts as “solidly,” “likely” or “leaning” toward one or another political party, they found that while all seven of the female incumbents are in “safe” districts for them, just one of the female nonincumbents — Republican Carol Miller, in West Virginia – is in a district considered favorable for her party.

In all other 19 contests, says Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics, the women — one Republican and 18 Democrats — are in districts that are either “leaning, likely or solidly” in the column of the opposing party.

“No, I wouldn’t use the word depressing,” she said in an interview. “The success of women in winning these nominations is notable because it demonstrates that they are not all going to be winnowed out in the nomination process. But when it comes to how successful women will be in the fall? It’s still a steep climb.”

She notes that the evaluations of districts as “likely” or “leaning” often changes as Election Day nears, and that this is more likely than usual for the 2018 midterms.

“In a more traditional political environment, election outcomes would be more predictable,” she said. “But this may prove to be a year when running as a challenger may be more tenable. Predicting the success of any given candidate, and of women candidates in general, is hard to do because the political ground is shifting as we speak.”

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