In Texas Primary, First Wave of Women Vies for Seats

March 2, 2018

Real Clear Politics: In Texas Primary, First Wave of Women Vies for Seats

By James Arkin


In campaigns across the country, from statewide contests to local races, a veritable flood of women are running for office this year, many of them Democrats spurred by anger at Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election and outrage over President Trump’s administration.

The trend is exemplified by next week’s primary elections in Texas, the first of the midterm cycle. Women are running in races targeted by the national party, hoping to knock off against GOP incumbents in crucial swing seats; in crowded primaries to replace departing Democrats; and even in districts considered to be decidedly uphill battles.

“I never thought that at this moment we would have this many competitive elections in Texas, in my home state, much less this many races with phenomenal women, all of whom have a clear path to victory not just in their primaries but in the general election,” said Lucinda Guinn, the vice president of campaigns at EMILYs List, which has endorsed five candidates in Lone Star State primaries.

Guinn called Texas a “perfect kickoff” for the primary season, and it is indeed reflective of this broader trend. Nationwide, more than 440 women are potentially running for House seats this year, including 343 Democrats, according to a tally from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Nearly 115 have already filed, and hundreds more are considered likely candidates. The previous record was 298 women running in 2012.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic consultant working on one of the Texas races, said female voters tend to turn out in high numbers in Democratic primaries, which gives the women running a structural advantage – though of course these voters won’t all simply vote for female candidates. Guinn said she has spent previous cycles begging women to run, and that it is exciting to see races with multiple women. Lake agreed, and said it’s part of a broader trend of enthusiasm across the country.

 “Texas is a great microcosm for what could happen in the country because it’s not even a blue state,” Lake said. “It’s a solidly red state, but women and Democrats are very, very energized.”

The districts in Texas, and the women running in them, are relatively diverse. Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq veteran and former Obama administration official, is running in a perennial swing district that includes 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and activist and journalist Laura Moser are running in the primary to face Rep. John Culberson in a district outside Houston that is considered a critical target for Democrats. Lillian Salerno, a small business owner, is running to challenge Rep. Pete Sessions in a north Dallas district. All of these women face crowded primaries and multiple other well-funded, credible candidates.

Clinton won each of those districts narrowly, even though the Dallas and Houston districts are longtime Republican strongholds. Candidates and party strategists argue that to repeat that success, they’ll need to court independent and moderate voters, particularly women, who are opposed to Trump.

“If we’re looking for a path to victory, it makes sense to get on the path that worked last time,” Fletcher told RCP.

Several women are vying to be the first Latinas elected to Congress in some districts, including state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (pictured), who is running just outside Houston, and Veronica Escobar, who is running in El Paso, though both face crowded primaries with multiple other women in overwhelmingly Democratic areas.

“It’s very exciting for all of us women to see so many other women running for office,” Escobar said. “It really does feel like a historic time for female candidates.”

The number of women running has particular significance in Texas. It’s the second largest congressional delegation of any state, with 36 representatives – California is first with 53. But of the current House members from the state, only three are female – Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Republican Kay Granger. Texas hasn’t elected a new woman to the House since Granger’s victory in 1996.

Multiple candidates told RCP they weren’t aware of this dry spell when they decided to run for office this year, but said it’s been a motivating factor during their time on the campaign trail.

“What Texas does is very important for Texans but it’s also very important for the entire country,” Salerno said. “When we’re so off on our representation, we throw the national conversation off.”

The critical nature of the races has attracted national attention from prominent Democratic women. Actress Alyssa Milano campaigned with Moser in the run-up to the primary and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s political committee endorsed Fletcher and Salerno, and also donated to Escobar, Garcia and Moser. 

Salerno said despite being the only woman in her primary, gender wasn’t a big talking point with voters. Instead, she’s focused on health care, education and immigration, and talks up her background as a small business owner and former Obama administration appointee at the Department of Agriculture.

Others had similar messages. Moser, one of the candidates in the Houston district, said flooding is the top issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year. Escobar said the number one issue is overwhelmingly health care, but also that voters in the border district are frustrated by Trump “demonizing immigrants and demonizing our neighbor.”

Fletcher, the lawyer from Houston, also said flooding is the top issue for voters in Houston. But that doesn’t mean women’s issues also aren’t top of mind. She said she was motivated to run for office in part by Republicans’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood last year – she co-founded Planned Parenthood Young Leaders in 2000, and cited that story in her first campaign commercial this year.

Though these candidates are running in the midst of the #MeToo movement, women’s marches and a broader cultural trend of women speaking out, those aspects haven’t been major issues on the campaign trail. Escobar said she hadn’t heard a single voter talk about the #MeToo movement, and that they are focused on specifically federal issues.  

Dori Fenenbock, another candidate running in the El Paso district as a moderate, also cited health care as a top concern, along with education and jobs. She too said the idea of electing a woman wasn’t top of mind for voters, but added that it went unsaid with two women considered the frontrunners in the race.

“There is a real acceptance in our community that gender doesn’t even seem to be an issue,” Fenenbock said. “Three of the six choices are men and they’re not gaining any traction. I think El Paso is showing we’re ready for more women leaders.”

But there has been a downside to having so many crowded primaries: negative campaigning. Fenenbock has attacked Escobar’s husband, an immigration judge, saying that he’s taking part in deporting immigrants (Escobar brushed the criticism aside, saying she’s trying to run a positive race).

Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dropped opposition research on Moser, including remarks she made in a magazine article criticizing rural Texas, arguing that she is a weak general election candidate for a critical seat. Progressive groups reacted with fury at the DCCC’s attempt to put a thumb on the scale, which blew intraparty divisions into a major news story.  

Moser, however, brushed off the attack. She credited it with helping her raise money from small donors and told RealClearPolitics in an interview that most voters hadn’t heard about it, and those who had either didn’t care or were angry.  

“For the most part, Texans do not like having people in Washington telling them what to do or who to vote for,” Moser said while walking the streets knocking on doors. “The people paying attention to that have been uniformly unimpressed and kind of angry. I keep hearing ‘Don’t mess with Texas.’”

Still, the negativity in some of the races has laid bare a problem for female candidates this year: So many have decided to run, often in the same district, that  some are inevitably going to lose. Lake, the veteran Democratic consultant, said there’s recognition among party strategists that there needs to be a soft landing created for women who aren’t successful this year. Often it takes more than one run for a congressional candidate to catch on, and fundraising and name identification become easier in subsequent campaigns. But Lake said it’s easier to persuade men to make a second attempt than it is to persuade women.

“We need a 2019 plan where we get these women incubated, get them introduced to donors and diagnose why they lost,” Lake said. “Many came in very late, and the question is how do we get them in earlier and get them positioned to be frontrunners. That succession planning is something we need to do.”

Still, for now the candidates and party strategists are focused on this year, and on energizing their supporters by opposing the Trump administration.

“I don’t think anyone should be surprised that the people that have the most to lose under this administration and under the Republican silence are stepping up and saying I want to throw my hat in the ring,” Ortiz Jones said.