Last Night, the Feminist Insurgency Hit the Polls—and Now It’s Headed to Congress

November 7, 2018

The Nation: Last Night, the Feminist Insurgency Hit the Polls—and Now It’s Headed to Congress

By Joan Walsh

The feminist resistance to Donald Trump marched from America’s cities, suburbs, and small towns into Congress and the statehouses on November 6. As of this writing, nearly 100 women will take their seats in the US House of Representatives in January; almost ninety percent of these women are Democrats. “I feel so good,” says Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock. The group had a plan to elect at least 23 Democratic women to the House, so that the 23 victories needed by the Democrats to control the chamber were provided by women. Of the party’s 27 pickups in the midterms thus far, 19 are women, all endorsed by Emily’s List. Another six Emily’s List-backed candidates are in races too close to call.

According to CNN exit polls, almost 80 percent of voters said that electing women was important to them, and apparently they meant it. This new class of women legislators is the youngest and most diverse in American history, featuring two Muslim women (Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar); the first Native American women (New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’s Sharice Davids, who is also a lesbian); the two youngest women ever elected to Congress (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Iowa’s Abby Finkenauer); Texas’s first two Latina congresswomen (Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia); plus three young black women (Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes, and Illinois’s Lauren Underwood). In a big victory for gun safety, Moms Demand Action candidate Lucy McBath—whose son, Jordan Davis, was murdered by a white man in 2012 for playing his music too loud—appears to have narrowly defeated conservative antiabortion crusader Karen Handel on a wave of suburban female activism that almost won Georgia’s long-Republican Sixth District in a 2017 special election. Of the 140 winning candidates endorsed by the group Run for Something, which supports millennial candidates for office, mainly in state and local chambers, a majority are women.

For a while on election night, the good news for women and progressives was obscured by at least two crushing defeats, with popular African-American gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum going down to the race-baiting Trump clone Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Beto O’Rourke coming within 2.6 points of beating right-wing Senator Ted Cruz in Texas. O’Rourke became a national hero as he toured every corner of the state and won more votes there than Hillary Clinton did in 2016—an unheard-of accomplishment for a Senate candidate.

Perhaps the most important female candidate of the night, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, was trailing Brian Kemp in her race for governor as The Nation goes to press, but she is refusing to concede because of the thousands of absentee and provisional ballots still uncounted. In a better country, Kemp’s electoral misdeeds—as secretary of state, he purged voters, held up ballot applications, and refused calls to step down as the state’s top election official while he ran for governor—would have resulted in federal supervision of the Georgia race, but so far he has been left alone to make the rules for his own election. “I truly believe he’s been trying to steal the election, and we’re not gonna let him do that,” says Schriock, whose group named Abrams its “rising star” in 2014. An Abrams loss would be a heartbreaker, but Democratic women have won four new governorships, in Michigan, Maine, New Mexico, and Kansas, which all flipped from red to blue. Kansas was a particularly welcome surprise, with Laura Kelly upsetting the notorious vote-suppressing Republican Kris Kobach.

The feminist insurgency that first showed up in the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates races—when 15 Democrats, 11 of them women, won seats previously held by Republicans—continued to pay off for Democrats, electing three new women to the House of Representatives: Richmond’s Abigail Spanberger, Northern Virginia’s Jennifer Wexton, and Virginia Beach’s Elaine Luria. Spanberger’s communications director told The Nation that the State House victories of two female candidates in Spanberger’s congressional district “made a huge difference” in her upset victory of Tea Party darling Dave Brat. The three women join four male Virginia Democrats in flipping the state’s congressional delegation, which before last night had seven Republicans to four Democrats.

Those 2017 Virginia victories marked the beginning of a new Democratic commitment to state legislative races, after losing almost 1,000 seats during the Obama presidency. On November 6, Democrats picked up more than 350 seats—cutting the Obama-era losses by more than a third—and flipped seven state chambers. In North Carolina and Michigan, they broke Republican supermajorities. They also made huge gains in the Texas House of Representatives, thanks both to O’Rourke’s campaign and to investment by Democratic groups like Forward Majority, as well as in the Pennsylvania state legislature, where 12 Emily’s List–endorsed women won seats. Between the new governors and the newly won state chambers, Democrats are in good shape to control a significant number of statehouses when redistricting begins in 2021.

Redistricting matters. Democrats won the popular vote by more than nine points—a larger margin than the winning party has enjoyed since at least 2010, and larger than the so-called “waves” of 1994, 2006, and 2014. Analysts are resisting calling this one a wave election, since the party “only” won 27 House seats (at current count)—Republicans won 63 in 2010, with a much smaller share of the popular vote—because gerrymandering has given the GOP a structural advantage both in the US House and in state chambers around the country. Given those disadvantages, this was indeed a wave election, no matter what underinformed pundits tell you.

And the wave was largely due to female voters and candidates. Women broke for Democrats by a 19-point margin, the largest midterm gender gap we’ve seen. But there is still some room for shame: at least 59 percent of white women supported Ted Cruz, and an unacceptable 67 percent of Georgia’s white women backed Kemp over Abrams. That’s why the diversity of the women that Democrats send to Congress matters so much, Schriock says. “You have to make sure you have someone who understands her community, and these women do. They just rolled up their sleeves and got it done.”