Women candidates fared well in the 2022 midterms, but not with the same major strides as the previous two cycles.
By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor
Coming into this election cycle, the country was riding a wave from the 2018 and 2020 elections, which saw record-breaking numbers of women candidates elected at the federal and state levels.
“In many ways, the last two cycles primed people for seeing huge increases every cycle and I think this cycle was much more a status quo election,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Given the increases seen in the past two election cycles, it is still encouraging that none of the ground gained was lost. More records were set in 2022 — but the gains leading to them were modest.
When the 118th Congress convenes in 2023, 149 women — 106 Democrats, 42 Republicans and one independent — will serve, which does break 2022’s record of 147. Those 42 Republican women also set a new high, surpassing the previous record of 41, set in 2022. The Democrats’ tally of 106 women overall is one shy of the current record.
“These are small, incremental gains,” said Walsh. “In some ways, it points to the fragility of the progress.”
WOMEN SERVING IN THE 118TH CONGRESS
Status quo in the House and the Senate
In 2023, 124 women will serve in the U.S. House: 91 Democrats and 33 Republicans, both of which are ties with previous party records. Twenty-two women will join the House for the first time — well short of the record of 36 set during the 2018 midterm elections. The wins for these 22 women will just barely offset the departure of 21 incumbent women who are leaving the House because of retirements, election losses, or bids for different offices.
Vermont — the lone remaining state to have never elected a woman to Congress — finally shrugged off that title when Democrat Becca Balint won a House seat. “It’s nice to have no states anymore in the country that have never sent a woman to Congress,” Walsh said.
In the Senate, 25 women will serve in 2023, which will be one fewer than the record of 26, set in 2020. With 15 Democrats — losing one of their ranks when Arizonan Senator Kyrsten Sinema registered as an independent on December 9 — the party is two shy of the record set in 2018. The nine Republican women who will serve ties with the current record.
In an important first, with the election of non-incumbent Republican Katie Britt, Alabama elected its first woman senator.
The area with the most gains this cycle was at the gubernatorial level. Moving into the general election, 25 women campaigned for governor — a record number of women gubernatorial candidates overall, as well as records for both major political parties. The five women-versus-women gubernatorial elections were also a record.
Those strong numbers led to a record number of 12 women elected to serve as governor in 2023, beating the record of nine, first set in 2004. After 18 years, the new record of 12 women governors is a dramatic change, Walsh noted.
Importantly, all eight incumbents who were up for reelection won. And the four new women governors achieved several firsts:
- Three states elected their first women governors: Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas, Democrat Maura Healey in Massachusetts, and Democrat Kathy Hochul in New York. Hochul, formerly the lieutenant governor, was appointed to the position after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned but won her first election this cycle.
- Two will be the first openly lesbian governors in the country: Healy and Democrat Tina Kotek in Oregon.
- Huckabee Sanders will be the first woman to follow in her father’s footsteps as a governor.
- Huckabee Sanders will also be one of the first two governors to have a woman lieutenant governor elected at the same time — along with Healey in Massachusetts.
- Huckabee Sanders will also be one of the first two governors to have a woman lieutenant governor elected at the same time — along with Healey in Massachusetts. Voters elected Republican Leslie Rutledge and Democrat Kim Driscoll, respectively.
WOMEN SERVING IN THE 118TH CONGRESS BY RACE AND ETHNICITY
With these elections, this means 24% of governors will be women. “So clearly work still needs to be done there,” said Walsh. “But it indicates, I hope, a growing shift about voter acceptance and comfort level with women as chief executives.”
And those gains are particularly important, because presidential candidates usually come from a background as either a senator or a governor.
Walsh noticed, however, the day after the election, there was much talk about Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida as a potential presidential candidate, and not nearly as much talk about Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. “What she pulled off was extraordinary,” Walsh said.
“The Michigan legislature is now Democratic, which hasn’t happened in a long time, and the top statewide elected positions are Democrats — in large part due to Whitmer’s leadership. So that’s one of those moments where you notice a gendered difference in the kind of coverage and the kind of conversation, the story of who might make it running higher and it goes instantly to the man, but less obviously to the woman.”
Women vs. women contests
This midterm election saw 44 all-women contests. Walsh doesn’t view these women versus women contests as a bad thing. “In large part, I think of this as a quality problem; it means we will see more and more of those races.” Walsh noted that in part this has happened more in the past few cycles because Republicans are now nominating more women candidates than they have in the past.
“It’s going to take both parties running women candidates in order for us to get to the point of seeing gender parity, and the Republican party still has a ways to go,” said Walsh. Elected women officials at every level are still disproportionately Democratic.
Women of color
For women of color, some important historic firsts were realized this cycle. Yet the total numbers of women of color serving are still far from where they should be.
With a special election in August to fill Alaska’s only seat in the House, Democrat Mary Peltola beat Republican Sarah Palin — becoming the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. Peltola won again in November, securing a full term.
Colorado, Illinois, and Oregon all elected their first Latinas to Congress. This helped to set the record of 19 Latinas (14 Democrats, five Republicans) who will serve in Congress, beating the previous record of 15, set in 2022. All but one of these will serve in the House.
Pennsylvania elected its first Black woman to Congress, and now a record of 27 Black women will serve in Congress. This beats the previous record of 26, set in 2021. All 27 will serve in the House, and all are Democrats. No Black women are either currently serving or were elected in the Senate.
Entering the general election, a record number of 3,552 women were running for state legislature. On election day, 2,404 women were elected (as of this writing and with a few elections still to be called), which sets a new record for women serving in state legislatures, beating the previous record of 2,307, set in 2022.
This moves the needle slightly, from a past record of 31.2% of state legislature seats held by women to 32.6%. And Colorado will join Nevada in having state legislatures with women as more than 50% of their members.
State legislatures have come more into the spotlight since the Dobbs decision.
“We do know from some early exit polling data that it looks like the abortion issue played a bigger role than it has in the past in terms of how it’s shaping and motivating voters,” Walsh said.
“And what we’ll look to in 2023 and 2024 for some of the state legislative races and Congressional races, is will we see women activated to be candidates as a result?”
How much is gender a factor?
It is now known that in a general election, party matters to voters way more than the gender of the candidate, says Walsh. “People vote party. So, the real question is, where does gender play out among the gatekeepers who wield the power, in terms of recruiting women candidates, supporting candidates, grooming people to be candidates?”
Walsh says most of those gatekeepers are male, and asks who they know, who they are comfortable with, and who are in their circles. Getting these party insiders to look to more women as potential candidates may be where the work needs to be done, more so than with voters.