Today, eight states are holding their primary elections: Voters in Alabama, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota are heading to the polls to decide who they want to see on the ballot in November. According to Gender Watch 2018, about a quarter of those major party candidates, or 122 people, are women.
Despite the echoing sentiment that 2018 is “the year of women,” experts are a little more cautious about what the uptick in women running for public office will mean in terms of representation. Kelly Dittmar and Debbie Walsh, both involved with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, wrote in an op-ed last month, stating that “it’s unlikely that the notable increase in women’s candidacies will translate into unprecedented gains in women’s representation after Election Day.”
What’s interesting, though, is that female candidates have done especially well in Democratic primaries this cycle. According to Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight, women have won 47 out of 68 incumbent-less Democratic primary matchups with male candidates so far. (In another sign that the so-called “year of the women” has done little to change perceptions across the aisle, a new poll from Politico found that Republicans are more likely than the average voter to say that men would do a better job than women in elected office.)
As Dittmar and Walsh write, the odds, simply put, are against women running for office because of “the entrenched political systems and patriarchal structures that have long worked to their disadvantage.” When they do win, it’s “in spite of difficult odds,” and not because those barriers have suddenly disappeared.
Staring their odds squarely in the face today, here are a few women candidates worth watching as the primary results start rolling in this evening.
The Democratic primary in New Mexico today could help pave the way to making history: One of the six candidates in the race to represent District 1 is Deb Haaland, a former state Democratic Party chairwoman who hopes to be the first Native American woman in Congress. In the latest polling, 19 percent of likely Democratic voters said they would vote for Haaland, putting her just a couple of points behind former US Attorney and frontrunner Damon Martinez. But nearly a third of voters were undecided at the time of the survey, so anything’s possible.
“I just felt like my voice—considering the fact that we've never had a Native American woman in Congress—might be a voice at the table that Congress has never heard,” she told Broadly in January. “I could bring something significant to decision making.”
New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district has been represented by a Republican since 1995; that may change since Incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo announced his retirement last year. Democratic party officials and other influencers have thrown their support behind state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who’s been described as “one of the most conservative Democrats in the legislature.” (He also holds a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.)
That’s why Tanzie Youngblood, a retired educator and self-described progressive black woman, has campaigned, in part, on the fact that she’s “a real Democrat.” During her campaign announcement, she said that she was committed to tackling “our common problems,” including stagnant wages, rising taxes and medical costs, and addiction. Although her opponent has far exceeded her fundraising, Youngblood is adamant that the people in District 2 want change. "Someone like me is the base of the Democratic Party," she said in a recent interview. "I represent change, and people want change."
Omeria Scott, a state representative in Mississippi, is the only female candidate running for US Senate in her state’s Democratic primary. Although it’s likely this six-person race will end up in a runoff, Scott hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who’s served since 2007, later this year. Scott, a breast cancer survivor and restaurateur, told Mississippi Today she believes her legislative experience (she was first elected to the chamber in 1993) helps her stand out amongst her opponents. One of her campaign flyers reads: “They used to say women were not qualified but they can’t say that about me.”
Two years ago, Iowa's 1st Congressional District voted for President Trump; now, however, Democrats are targeting two-term Republican US Rep. Rod Blum’s seat in hopes of taking back the House. By many accounts, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary is Abby Finkenauer, a state representative who’s been backed by Emily’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. If she picks up the nomination today and wins in November, she would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (She’s 28.)
"We are getting out there and talking with folks across the district," Finkenauer told the Des Moines Register. "We have to make sure that we have somebody who understands what peoples' lives are like and are willing to have their backs. Quite frankly, our entire country and our state is on the line in 2018, and we are working really hard to take it back."
In all of its 35 years of existence, the 45th District in California, which includes conservative Orange County, has never elected a Democrat to Congress. That could change this year: Four candidates are vying for votes in today’s Democratic primary ballot, including Katie Porter, a professor of law at UC Irvine who’s been endorsed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris. If she beats out her competitors—including top contender Dave Min, a fellow UC Irvine law professor and moderate who’s running on “The Dad Agenda”—Porter will go up against Rep. Mimi Walters in November.
Porter also recently came forward to share how she escaped a marriage rife with domestic abuse, and spoke about some of the sexism she’s experienced on the campaign trail. “People come up to me and say, ‘If you win, who will care for your children?’” Porter told the Huffington Post. “I’m a tenured professor ― I’m doing it. I had three babies on the tenure track and took no delay. I know how to raise kids and work. Half of all the moms in America are single moms, and there should be more of us in Congress.”