2024 State Legislative Primaries are Presenting Hurdles to Republican Women Incumbents

South Carolina made recent news after the last of the state’s Republican “sister senators” – Katrina Shealy (R) – was defeated in a primary runoff election on June 25. Healy was one of five women senators, including one of three Republican women senators, who fought to preserve abortion access in South Carolina. She has served in the South Carolina Senate since 2013 and was the only Republican woman senator from 2013 to 2017. With Healy’s loss, all three of South Carolina’s incumbent Republican women senators have been defeated in 2024 primary elections. With just one Republican woman non-incumbent advancing to a general election contest against a 28-year Democratic incumbent, it is entirely plausible that the chamber’s Republican caucus returns to being all male in 2025. 

The primary hurdles to Republican women incumbents in South Carolina might not be isolated to the distinct political dynamics of that state, however. To better investigate how incumbent state legislators are faring in 2024, I analyzed primary election data from state legislative contests in the 26 states that held primary elections through June 25. While nearly all Republican and Democratic incumbent state legislators have advanced to general elections, some interesting trends emerge when we examine those legislators who have not advanced from their primaries. Looking specifically at gender and party differences in 2024 and in comparison to recent cycles, I find:

  • Almost 80% of all incumbent state legislators who have lost primary elections at this point in 2024 are Republicans.   
  • Women are overrepresented among Republican incumbents who have been defeated in state legislative primaries, while they are underrepresented among defeated Democratic incumbents.  
  • While the incumbent primary loss rate at present is lower for Democratic women state legislators than in the three previous cycles, the rate of primary incumbent losses for Republican women state legislators is higher in 2024 than in 2022, 2020, and 2018.  
  • At the same time, women are overrepresented among both Democratic and Republican challengers who have defeated incumbents of their own party in state legislative primaries. 

Incumbent Losses 

More than 90% of Republican and Democratic incumbent state legislators have advanced to general elections, but incumbent win rates vary by party. Republican incumbents are winning at lower rates than Democrats. And while Republicans are 59.3% of all state legislative incumbents who have competed in primaries to date, they are 78.3% of incumbents who have lost primary contests at this point in election 2024. 

Women state legislative incumbents are not losing at disproportionate rates to their male counterparts overall, but closer analysis reveals that gender differences diverge by party. Republican women incumbents are overrepresented among Republican incumbents defeated in state legislative primaries (33.7% of incumbent losses v. 20.2% of incumbent candidates), while Democratic women incumbents are underrepresented among Democratic incumbent losses (30.4% of incumbent losses v. 50.8% of incumbent candidates). 

With about half of state legislative primaries completed, Republican women incumbents are losing at rates higher than in the three previous cycles (2022, 2020, 2018). This is especially notable as post-redistricting years (2022) are often when incumbents across parties are most vulnerable to competitive challenges in both primary and general elections. The incumbent primary loss rate is lower for Democratic women state legislators at this point in 2024 than it was by the end of the three previous cycles.

Republican incumbent losses (across gender) have been especially concentrated in Idaho, Texas, and South Dakota, where between 14.8% and 18.1% of Republican incumbent state legislative candidates were defeated in the primary. In Idaho, women – who were under 30% of all Republican incumbents running this year – are over half of the 15 Republican incumbents defeated in the May 2024 primary. Women incumbent state legislative candidates also lost at rates disproportionate to their presence on Republican primary ballots in South Dakota (44.4% of incumbent losses v. 32.8% of incumbent candidates), but they are not overrepresented among Republican incumbents defeated in Texas primary contests (20% of incumbent losses v. 20.5% of incumbent candidates).

In addition to illustrating the variance in gender trends by state, these cases provide some additional insight into the nature of Republican incumbent defeats. More specifically, they demonstrate that there is no universal finding about the ideological direction of Republican challengers. For example, while the Republican women senators in South Carolina were targeted for being too moderate – particularly on the issue of abortion – an analysis of the incumbent targeting in Idaho shows a mix of successful attacks from both the left and the right of Republican incumbents. At the least, the high levels of Republican incumbent defeat – at least compared to Democrats and to previous cycles – indicate increased levels of division among Republicans at both the voter and elite levels in multiple states. 

Primary Challengers

Primary losses among incumbent Republican women state legislators are not only illustrative of in-party conflict but also signal potential hurdles to sustaining current levels of Republican women’s representation. However, if women are being defeated by other women, drops in Republican women’s state legislative representation might be avoided. 

At this point in the 2024 cycle, women are one-third of all challengers that have defeated incumbents in primary contests, a slightly higher proportion than their representation among all state legislative primary challengers (28.6%) who have run in the 26 states in this analysis. Just as they make up the majority of incumbents defeated in primaries, Republicans are over three-quarters of successful primary challengers to date. And while they are less than a third of all Republicans who have defeated incumbents in state legislative primaries, Republican women primary challengers have won their contests at a higher rate than both their male and Democratic counterparts. 

This begs a question of whether Republican women challengers are targeting Republican women incumbents in primary contests. While there are likely specific contests where practitioners sought women challengers as a strategic tactic to defeat women incumbents, the data shows Republican women incumbents are still more likely to be defeated by men in 2024 primaries to date. Specifically, of the 35 Republican women incumbents who have lost state legislative primaries thus far in 2024, nine (25.7%) were defeated by women and 26 (74.3%) were defeated by men. Among the 71 incumbent Republican men state legislators defeated, 13 (18.3%) were defeated by women, indicating a slightly higher likelihood of women than men being defeated by Republican women primary challengers. Similar trends are evident among Democrats, whose incumbent losses are much smaller in number. 

Why does this matter?

In an election cycle where the number of women state legislative candidates, specifically Republican candidates, is down, maintaining women’s current levels of representation depends in part on the ability of incumbent women to retain their seats. With less than half of primary contests left to go, Republican women incumbents have been most vulnerable to defeat by members of their own party. The success of Republican women primary challengers is likely to offset the potential loss in Republican women legislators from 2024 to 2025, as will wins for other Republican women non-incumbents in open seats and against Democratic incumbents in November. But for a group already significantly underrepresented among both women (33.4%) and Republican state legislators (20.2%), these findings reveal early hurdles already present as  Republican women work to close representational gaps in the election 2024. 

Kelly Dittmar

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).