Democratic women sweep into office in state elections

November 8, 2017

Politico: Democratic women sweep into office in state elections

By Maggie Severns

Female candidates swept into office in Virginia and other state and local elections around the country Tuesday, giving Democrats the first taste of a force reshaping their party in the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Women running for office for the first time might have wrested control of the Virginia House of Delegates from Republicans, who held the chamber since the 20th century. Another female Democrat flipped the Washington state Senate to her party’s control, alongside Democratic women who picked up state legislative seats in Georgia and Michigan, while Manchester, New Hampshire, elected its first Democratic mayor in decades in Joyce Craig — who is also the city’s first female mayor.

The Virginia races especially, some of which are currently in the recount process, outperformed Democrats’ wildest expectations before the 2017 elections. And as the party looks ahead to 2018, that success has prompted progressives, pro-abortion groups and Democratic candidate recruiters to double down on encouraging female candidates and running on issues like women’s health and equal pay in the midterm elections and beyond.

“Gender played a huge role in the campaigns this year,” said Joshua Ulibarri, who served as Virginia House Democrats’ pollster in 2017. “The excitement among women can’t be measured other than last night with those 16 seats,” Ulibarri added, referring to the 16 or more House of Delegates seats Democrats appeared likely to pick up as of Wednesday.

Trump’s election a year ago nudged several of the successful female candidates into politics. So did January’s Women’s March, where they got a taste of politics while organizing female activists in their areas. Hala Ayala, a first-time candidate for office who won her race in suburban Prince William County, helped organize buses to Washington, D.C., so that women could attend. Several days after the march, after Ayala learned that her delegate supported having a “day of tears” mourning abortion, she decided to make a run.

“I said ‘I’m running for office, I can’t see those Trump policies in my backyard,'” Ayala said. She soon found herself in a cohort of first-time female candidates in the Northern Virginia suburbs. They bonded over the course of the year, checking in often about balancing the pressures of candidacy with work and child care, and texting one another, “How are you holding up?” after attacks from opponents.

Tuesday’s elections will at least double the share of women represented in Virginia’s House of Delegates. They also represented close to half of the candidates this year, and two-thirds of the candidates running in the crucial 17 House of Delegates districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

“The energy among Democratic women to step up and run for office is a moment we have been waiting for at EMILYs List for 32 years,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of the political-action committee that backs female Democratic candidates. The group backed 16 women running for the Virginia House of Delegates, at least 13 of whom won. (One race is still too close to call.)

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, EMILYs List has roughly doubled the number of U.S. House districts where it is recruiting candidates, Schriock said. The group is attempting to recruit candidates in more than 80 districts and has backed 47 female candidates. Then there are districts like Virginia’s 10th, where multiple Democratic women are running to take on GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock and EMILYs List is not picking sides.

Republicans have meanwhile recruited several female candidates who they hope will show promise in 2018, such as Kimberlin Brown Pelzer, a former soap opera actress who spoke at last year’s Republican National Convention. In Virginia, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Jill Vogel accrued more votes than any other woman running for a statewide office in the state’s history, according to the state Republican Party.

The success of Democrats in Virginia underscored the importance of Republicans’ do-or-die push this fall to overhaul the tax code, one national Republican argued on Wednesday.

Tax reform “is something that is really applicable and relatable to a lot of female voters out there. There are a lot of women who feel financially stressed at home, they’re often the ones who are balancing the checkbooks,” said one GOP operative focused on House races. “That’s important when it comes to finding issues that will resonate in 2018.”

Some Democrats looking to Virginia as a test case for the 2018 elections meanwhile made the case that the elections show the party can successfully focus on women’s health and abortion, which remains a divisive stance. Northam, who blew out Gillespie in an unexpected 9-point victory, routinely talked about protecting women’s right to chose on the campaign trail.

Statewide exit polling found that a bigger share of women supported Democrat Ralph Northam than had backed Clinton in the 2016 elections. White, college-educated women voted to elect Northam by 58 to 42 percentage points, a jump from the 50 percent of white college-educated women who supported Clinton and 44 percent who supported Trump last year, according to exit polls released by The Washington Post.

Planned Parenthood officials discussed previously unreleased polling on Wednesday, conducted in late October, that found messaging about women’s health made voters who lean Democratic 4 percentage points more likely to support Northam for governor. Northam won among women by 22 percentage points, a higher share than Clinton, according to exit polls.

“The No. 1 thing that is activating any person in the U.S. right now is this feeling that women are under attack,” said Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes.

National Democrats also pointed to Tuesday’s wins in Virginia as a reinforcement for their party’s strategy for taking back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 by targeting suburban areas where minority populations have grown in recent years and educated, white women are seen as a key demographic for Democrats looking to grow support. For example, in Loudoun County, which consists of both suburban and exurban areas, Northam beat Gillespie 59 percent to 39 percent.

“Women voters are going to drive the future of those districts, and they’re voting Democrat,” Schriock said.