“More Than 4,500 Women Have Signed Up to Run For Office Since the Election” proclaimed Time Magazine and a New York Magazien headline reads “First They Marched, Now More Than 13,000 Women Are Planning to Run for Office” — From Marie Claire to the Washington Post, news sites have been overflowing with pieces calling on women to run for office or celebrating women for stepping up to run for office. It seems that women have finally woken up and found their political ambition. If we follow Jennifer Lawless and her co-authors, we have fewer women elected in politics because women lack political ambition: if women don’t run, women cannot win. But now that so many women are stepping up, surely we are due for another Year of the Women in 2018!
Not so fast. Getting more women into elected office is about more than political ambition. Getting more women to run is the first step, indeed, and requires them to see some major rewards to running that would outweigh the overall high costs as Shauna Shames points out in her new book on the political ambitions of millennials. But beyond running, actually getting women elected really depends on the availability of open seats in the 2018 midterm election. In American politics, incumbency is the most reliable factor for predicting election outcomes: 98 percent of incumbents have been reelected between 1996 and 2016 in the House, with similar rates for the Senate.
To increase the number of women in office, we need to encourage women to run for open seats. As of now, there are no open seats in the Senate and only five (out of 435) in the House. Of these five seats, four are solidly Republican while one is solidly Democratic. If we want to have another year of the women in 2018, first of all, we need far more open seats, and also several women need to run in these open districts. If the current race in California 34th house district to replace Rep. Xavier Becerra is any indication, women are stepping up to run: half of the candidates are women. While no guarantee, this increases the chances of a woman being elected and is a promising sign for things to come.
Of course, the competitiveness of seats matters too. According to the Cook Report, as of February 2017, three of the House districts are competitive (but not open seats) and none in the Senate (five seats lean democratic and two lean Republican). We might add more competitive seats over the next two years but even then, competitive districts are not a sure bet: in CO house district 6 Rep. Coffman (R) has been considered vulnerable and the district has been considered to lean democrat since 2012. However, Rep. Coffman has withstood any attempts at replacing him so far. As of now, the Cook Report judges the district to lean Republican.
Further, and often overlooked in media accounts, if we are truly committed to increasing the number of women in Congress, we need women from both sides of the aisle to run. There are encouraging signs that women of all ideological stripes are gearing up to run signing up for non-partisan women’s recruitment programs such as She Should Run in record numbers. Yet it is more likely that the great number of women running for office will be Democratic women as Republican women historically run at lower numbers and Democratic groups such as EMILY’s List have announced its ‘most aggressive female recruitment effort’ yet. Comparable recruitment efforts both in resources and money on the Republican side do not exist.
If we focus only on progressive women, the number of open or competitive seats comes down to just one open seat in the House. Instead, if both Republican and Democratic women win their general elections across all open and competitive seats, we could add eight women to the House. This would not be another “Year of the Woman,” but it would be progress. Further, it shows that the United States cannot reach political parity without conservative women running for office and winning elections.
The sudden increase in women’s political ambition and their newfound willingness to throw their hats into the electoral arena are rightfully being celebrated, but achieving equal representation is never as easy as just running for office. If we want more women in politics, we need to be strategic about where and when we have women run — and most importantly we need to channel our financial resources to female candidates in both Democratic and Republican districts where they have a real chance of winning. Only then we will translate numbers into success.