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Mixed Results for Women in Most Recent Round of Primaries

by Anthony Ramicone // Published May 22, 2014

o MONICA WEHBY facebook
Oregon's Monica Wehby seeks to increase the number of Republican women in the U.S. Senate

In 2012, FairVote launched Representation 2020, a project to raise awareness of the under-representation of women in elected office and to highlight the often-overlooked structural barriers to achieving gender parity in American electionsIn 2013, we held a forum on women's under-representation in politics that aired on CSPAN, developed a Parity Index to measure how far each state is from achieving gender parity in its elections, and published the first in our series of annual reports called The State of Women's Representation. We will be providing updates on how women are doing as the 2014 election cycle progresses.

A host of primaries were conducted on May 20, most of which were in states that do a poor job of electing women to political office: Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Several of these states saw races with strong female candidates who will now progress to the general elections in November.

In the West Virginia Senate race to replace Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), for example, both primary winners are women. The Republican nominee is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who currently represents West Virginia’s 2nd congressional district. The Democratic nominee is Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.  Regardless of the outcome of the race – Capito is favored to win – there is no longer any doubt that West Virginia’s next senator will be a woman. West Virginia, which ranks among the bottom ten in our Representation 2020 Parity Index, has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate, so these primaries have proven quite historic.

However, there were setbacks for women in neighboring Pennsylvania. Today only five of 50 governors are female: four Republicans and one Democrat. Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary offered one of the best chances for an increase in that number, as it featured two strong women candidates, including one-time frontrunner Allyson Schwartz, the state's lone female member of Congress.  Schwartz was badly defeated, receiving only 17.6% of the vote, compared to winner Tom Wolf’s 57.9%. Also running was Kathleen McGinty, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who received 7.7% of the vote.

Rep. Schwartz will not be on the ballot to retain her House seat in November, and both major party nominees to replace her are men. While there are seven women progressing to the general election for Congress in Pennsylvania, all face incumbent representatives projected to win in FairVote’s Monopoly Politics 2014 report. It is almost certain that come 2015, one of our largest states will not have a single woman among its 18 U.S. House members and two U.S. Senators – as well as no woman in its governor’s mansion. These results underscore the ongoing value of political parties recruiting and backing women candidates, especially for our highest offices. 

In the Kentucky Senate race, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes won the Democratic primary with a commanding 76.5% of the vote. She will face Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in what has been predicted to be the most expensive Senate race of the 2014 cycle.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, Elisabeth Jensen, director of an education non-profit, has won the Democratic primary by over 20 points. Jensen will face an uphill battle in the general against incumbent Andy Barr (R), who is favored to hold the Lexington-based seat. If Grimes and Jensen both manage to pull off unexpected general election upsets, Kentucky, which ranks 47th in the Parity Index, will see a significant increase in the quality of representation for its women.

Another woman trying for an upset is Michelle Nunn, CEO of non-profit Points of Light, who has won the Democratic primary in the Georgia U.S. Senate election. She will face the winner of a Republican run-off between Rep. Jack Kingston and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue in the race to fill Senator Saxby Chambliss’ seat. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel finished a close third in the Republican primary, missing the runoff and a chance to become Georgia's first elected female senator.

Idaho, which ranks 42nd in the Parity Index, saw women running in both primaries for the 1st congressional district. However, both lost, leaving Idaho with an all-male delegation until at least 2017. Arkansas, which ranks 43rd and has not sent a woman to the U.S. House since 1963, is also guaranteed an all-male delegation.

In Oregon, a state with an impressive record of electing women to office, ranking 13th in our Parity Index, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby won the GOP Senate primary, and will face off against incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley in November.  While she was originally considered a strong challenger to Merkley, drawing support from the likes of Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, and John McCain, allegations that Wehby harassed her ex-husband during their divorce proceedings in 2007 may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to her campaign.  

Who’s Next?

June 3rd marks the next round of primaries, and there are a handful of intriguing races with female candidates. California’s 21st district, located in California’s Central Valley, will see a top-two primary featuring incumbent Rep. David Valadao (R) and challenger Amanda Renteria (D). The two are all but guaranteed to make it to the general election, but be sure to watch how close their vote totals are, as that will give us an idea of how heated the rest of the race will be.

In Iowa, Joni Ernst appears to have pulled away in a crowded field in the Republican primary to fill Senator Tom Harkin’s seat, receiving endorsements from Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. To avoid the party picking the nominee at a convention, she must surpass 35% of the vote. If Ernst wins, she will be seen as competitive in a race against Congressman Bruce Braley, who is favored to win the Democratic nomination.

Finally, the open seat race for New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district features Aimee Belgard, a lawyer who has significantly out-fundraised her opponents in the Democratic Primary. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already targeted the race, airing negative ads against both potential Republican nominees. FairVote projects this race will be a toss-up, and therefore one to watch closely. At this point, the last woman to win a Senate or House election in New Jersey was Republican Rep. Marge Roukema in 2000

Stay tuned at more updates on the 2014 elections. For a list of women who are running this cycle for Congress and statewide executive office, visit the Center for American Women and Politics. For more on the state of women’s representation in each of the 50 states, see our state profiles and our report The State of Women’s Representation 2013-2014. For more FairVote projections for the 2014 election, see our report Monopoly Politics 2014.