Female candidates are signing up to run for Congress at a record-breaking pace this election cycle. But will 2019 be the year women make huge gains on Capitol Hill? Not so much.
Despite record-shattering numbers of women waging campaigns at the House, Senate and statewide executive levels, women will still lag far behind men in the proportion of those elected offices they occupy — no matter what happens in November.
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Currently, women make up nearly 20 percent of the House, while 23 of the 100 senators are women. Those figures may well see an uptick after the election, but the increase will be nominal.
Indeed, in an election year in which female candidates have ascended to prominence — particularly Democratic women buoyed by a wave of anti-Trump resistance and a fervent liberal base — it’s easy to overlook that they still make up less than a quarter of all House candidates, according to data tracked by the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics.
“With record levels of women running this year, we are hopeful that we will see gains in the proportion of women in Congress in 2019, but there will still be much progress left to be made to achieve gender parity,” said CAWP Director Deborah Walsh.
Many of the female candidates in the vanguard of this election cycle acknowledge that, as encouraging as this moment is for women running, it won’t tip the scales overnight. But that doesn’t mean the gains aren’t significant.
“Every bit counts, and the fact that we have just more women this cycle” makes a huge difference for the future, Cori Bush, a Democratic House candidate in Missouri, said in an interview.
Bush, a nurse and pastor, rose to prominence as a community activist after the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. She fell short Tuesday in a bid to unseat Rep. Lacy Clay, an entrenched Democratic incumbent. Clay and his father have represented the St. Louis district for the past 50 years.
“Even if only a handful make it in, that’s a handful we didn’t have two years ago. We’re going to be the ones who inspire a whole other group to run,” Bush added.
Bush was one of 48 female candidates — nearly three-quarters of them Democrats — who competed in congressional primaries Tuesday in Washington, Kansas, Missouri and Michigan. That total includes incumbents. To date, 36 states have held their primaries, and nine more states will hold primaries by the end of August.
“This year, the record number of women running won’t erase the inequality that exists right now, but it is a huge step forward,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said in an interview.
Sewell played a pivotal role in helping to elect Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator from Alabama in decades, by mobilizing black female voters. And in May, Sewell led the charge to persuade the Federal Election Commission to allow child care to count as a campaign expense, helping ease one of the many barriers women in particular face when running for office.
Even accounting for the disparity between the number of men and women running, female candidates do continue to break records. In the Senate, 54 women signed up to run this cycle, eclipsing the 2016 record of 40 female candidates. The numbers are even starker in the House, where 476 women filed to run, far surpassing the 2012 record of 298 female candidates, according to CAWP data.
“We should place this year into proper context — we are seeing a record number of women running and winning, and that is something that will help us get to parity” over time, Sewell said. “We’ve got to crawl before we run.”
In the House, women make up 24 percent of all candidates this cycle, a significant jump from 18 percent in 2016. Thirty years ago, women comprised just 8 percent of all House primary candidates, according to CAWP.
“We’ve still got a ways to go to get to a point where even just the candidate pool reflects parity, let alone the pool of elected members,” said CAWP scholar Kelly Dittmar.
POLITICO is closely following women running for office this cycle via the Women Rule Candidate Tracker, a research collaboration with the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers-New Brunswick and the Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center.
Women who have already broken through the barriers facing female candidates, like Sewell and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), predict that momentum from this cycle will carry through to 2020, when President Donald Trump will likely be on the ballot again.
“It’s hard for me to say that Trump is helpful for anything,” said Jayapal, the first woman to represent her Seattle district. “But the urgency of the moment, what he has put at stake with his cruelness and discrimination … does clarify for people how important it is that we have their voices.”
The success of female candidates this year isn’t limited to historic firsts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York set to become the youngest woman ever sent to Congress once the general election is done.
In Michigan on Tuesday night, Gretchen Whitmer defeated two male primary challengers — one of whom, Abdul El-Sayed, was backed by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. She now advances to take on GOP nominee Bill Schuette, hoping to follow Jennifer Granholm as Michigan’s second female Democratic governor..
Kansas GOP candidate Caryn Tyson competed against a half-dozen male challengers in her primary on Tuesday, all of whom were vying to replace another Republican woman, retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins.
Also running in Kansas was an Ocasio-Cortez-style record-setter, Sharice Davids. The progressive, lesbian ex-mixed martial arts fighter was on the ballot in the Democratic primary to challenge Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) this fall. Davids would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress if she can make it through and topple Yoder, though she also has seen Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders back a male opponent.
Another woman competing Tuesday was Rashida Tlaib, who could become Congress’ first female Muslim-American member if she prevailed in her Michigan House Democratic primary. Tlaib and Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit city council, were running close in early returns Tuesday night.
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, said that this year’s surge in female candidates is only a first step toward more systemic change in the demographics of national politics.
“Like anything, it’s not a fix overnight,” said Rojas, whose PAC backed Ocasio-Cortez and Bush and has made an effort to spotlight women as half of its slate. “Hopefully we can do it this cycle, but this is a long game.”