Early June Primaries Shed Light on Gender Trends to Watch in Election 2020

The 2020 sub-presidential primary election season kicked off on March 3rd with congressional and statewide primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas. But within weeks of those contests, the COVID-19 pandemic created entirely new electoral conditions across the country. In addition to shifting to mail-in voting as the primary mode for casting ballots, many states postponed primary elections until early summer. Many of those postponed primaries, in addition to the regularly-scheduled contests, will take place over the next 2 weeks.

Together, 12 states – Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia – will hold congressional and statewide primary elections on June 2nd and June 9th, with 1 more state – Idaho – reporting results from their May 19th election on June 2nd. This concentration of primary contests provides as an opportunity to evaluate gender and partisan trends at play not only in these contests, but throughout the 2020 election cycle.  

1. The positive trend in women’s candidacies has continued beyond election 2018.

Earlier this month, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) marked a milestone in women’s candidacies in the 2020 cycle; a record number of women candidates have now filed to run for the U.S. House, surpassing the notable record that was set in 2018 with about 10% of House seats still left to file this year. The increase in women’s candidacies is important, as it demonstrates that the positive trend we witnessed in the 2018 election will continue into this cycle.

But women’s representation in the candidate pool must be considered in the company of men. Tracking the percentage of all candidates who are women better accounts for increased candidacies across both men and women. Women are 27.7% of all congressional and statewide executive candidates on ballots in June 2nd and June 9th primary elections, and this level of representation is fairly consistent across office type; women are 28.6% of U.S. House candidates, 29% of U.S. Senate candidates, and 23.3% of candidates for statewide executive offices being contested in early June. These percentages mirror women’s levels of representation across the entire population of filed candidates in 2020, which are up from 2018 at the congressional level, but down among candidates for statewide executive offices – of which there are far fewer contests nationwide this year.

Gender parity among U.S. officeholders requires greater gender parity among those who run office. These data demonstrate that we are still far from this goal, but that – at least at the congressional level – this cycle represents some progress.   

2. The partisan gap among women candidates is smaller in 2020 than 2018, but Democratic women are still better represented among women and within their own party.

Partisan differences were stark in women’s 2018 candidacies, with Democratic women responsible for nearly all of the gains in women’s candidacies, nominations, and officeholder gains. With Republican women already breaking their previous record for U.S. House candidacies in 2020, paying close attention to the partisan gap among women – in both raw numbers and proportions of their party’s candidates – provides us a clearer sense of how evenly progress for women candidates is distributed and whether or not that has changed over time.

In the 12 early June primaries, women are about 34.5% of all Democratic and 21.5% of all Republicans congressional and statewide executive candidates. This largely mirrors the representation of women among all Democratic (36.6%) and all Republican (20.9%) candidates in states where filing deadlines have already passed in the 2020 cycle. While Democratic women are better represented among their party’s contenders, Republican women have gained slightly more ground since 2018 within their party’s candidate pool. At this point in 2020, Republican women are up 4.7 percentage points from 2018 in their representation among all Republican congressional and statewide executive candidates, while Democratic women are up by 3.4 percentage points. The gains are larger in U.S. House contests, where Republican women were just 13.7% of Republican candidates in 2018 and represent 21.5% of U.S. House candidates filed as of this week; Democratic women were 32.5% of their party’s House candidates in 2018 and are up to 37.6% thus far in 2020.

Both Democratic and Republican women represent a smaller proportion of their party’s candidates for statewide executive offices in 2020 than they did in 2018, but it is important to be especially cautious about comparing these two years due to the much smaller number of statewide executive offices on the ballot in 2020.

There is one more important caveat to evaluating party differences and trends in the percentage of candidates who are women. In 2020, more women than ever are running as Democratic incumbents, while Republican women are more likely to be running as challengers to incumbents. For Democratic women, that means that even the same percentage of candidates as 2018 might yield even better outcomes due to the incumbency advantage. For Republican women, representing a greater percentage of Republican candidates will matter most if they are running in districts and for offices with the greatest possibility of party gains.

3. Increasing gender parity among officeholders means not only ensuring that more women run, but that women candidates run in contests and contexts in which they can find electoral success. The dominance of men among incumbents means that women are still especially reliant on open and competitive contests to make electoral gains.

U.S. House

Women are just 20% of incumbent candidates for the U.S. House on June 2nd and June 9th primary ballots. And while the incumbency advantage is real, women are over-represented among vulnerable incumbents in these contests – and likely across the 2020 cycle – because of their success in the most competitive districts just two years ago. Democratic women were responsible for flipping the majority of House seats from Republican to Democrat in 2018; today, they are about half (7 of 15) Democratic incumbents running for re-election to the House in districts Cook Political Report rates as toss-ups.

Two of those women – Iowa’s first women Representatives Cindy Axne (D, IA-03) and Abby Finkenauer (D, IA-01) – will be on the ballot on June 2nd. While these women are likely to win their party’s nomination next week, they are expected to face competitive conditions come November; incumbent Representatives Susan Wild (D, PA-07) and Susie Lee (D, NV-03) are also new Democratic women members on upcoming ballots that are running in vulnerable districts this year. Increasing women’s representation in 2021 means holding on to gains women made in the 2018 election.

Republican women are a smaller share of incumbents overall and within their party. Of the just 13 Republican women who currently serve in the House, 11 are running for re-election in 2020. The two incumbent representatives not running for re-election are Susan Brooks (R, IN-05) and Representative Martha Roby (R, AL-02). While their numbers are small, the remaining Republican women House incumbents are favored to win re-election, including the only freshman Republican woman in the 116th Congress – Carol Miller (R, WV-03) – who is on the ballot on June 9th.

Non-incumbent women – women running as challengers or for open seats – make up the large majority of women candidates for the U.S. House this year. And more than 50% of non-incumbent women candidates who are not challenging members of their own party in the primary are running for nominations in districts where the opposing party is strongly favored to win in November. This signals caution about not assuming more women candidates necessarily yields more women officeholders.

Of 73 House districts on ballots over the next two weeks, women have the potential for gains – if they make it through the primary – in seven districts where women are non-incumbent candidates and current race ratings favor their party. These potentially opportune districts include IN-01, IN-05, GA-09, GA-14, MT-AL, NM-03, PA-07.

  • Indiana’s 1st congressional district (June 2nd): Four Democratic primary candidates in this open-seat district that is currently rated as “Solid Democrat” by Cook Political Report are women. If one of the two Latina Democrats running for this seat wins the nomination and election in November, she would be the first Latina to represent Indiana in Congress. Among the seven Republican primary candidates, none are women.
  • Indiana’s 5th congressional district (June 2nd): Women are six (3D, 3R) of 20 (5D, 15R) candidates in this open-seat contest that Cook Political Report rates as “Lean Republican.”
  • Georgia’s 9th congressional district (June 9th): Women are three (1D, 2R) of 12 (3D, 9R) candidates in this open-seat contest that Cook Political Report rates as “Solid Republican.” 
  • Georgia’s 14th congressional district (June 9th): Cook Political Report rates this open-seat contest as “Solid Republican” in which Marjorie Greene (R) is the only woman of nine Republican candidates.
  • Montana’s at-large congressional district (June 2nd): Kathleen Williams, who is one of two candidates for the Democratic nomination, was the Democratic nominee for this seat in 2018. She lost the general election to Greg Gianforte (R), who is not running for re-election, by 4 points. Debra Lamm, who is one of six candidates for the Republican nomination, is a former member of the Montana House and Senate. Cook Political Report rates this seat as “Likely Republican.”
  • New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district (June 2nd): Women are five (3D, 2R) of ten (7D, 3R) candidates in this open-seat contest that Cook Political Report rates as “Solid Democratic.” If a woman wins this seat and incumbent women in NM-01 and NM-02 hold their seats, New Mexico would have an all-woman House delegation. Because four of five women candidates are women of color, the New Mexico House delegation could also be all-women of color in 2021. 
  • Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district (June 2nd): Lisa Scheller (R) is one of two Republicans seeking to challenge incumbent Representative Susan Wild (D) in a contest that Cook Political Report currently rates as “Lean Democratic.”

In another seven districts that Cook Political Report currently rates as toss-ups, women are running as either incumbents (GA-06, IA-01, IA-03, NM-02), challengers (GA-06, IA-01, NM-02, SC-01), both (GA-06, IA-01, NM-02), or for open seats (GA-07, IA-02).

  • Georgia’s 6th congressional district (June 9th): Incumbent Representative Lucy McBath (D) could face former Representative Karen Handel in a rematch of their 2018 contest, which McBath won by 1%.
  • Georgia’s 7th congressional district (June 9th): Among the women running for this open seat is Carolyn Bourdeaux, who was the Democratic nominee in 2018, losing to now-Representative Rob Woodall (R) by just over 300 votes (0.2%). This race is currently rated as a toss-up by Cook Political Report.
  • Iowa’s 1st congressional district (June 2nd): Incumbent Representative Abby Finkenauer (D) won her seat for the first time in 2018 by five points. Ashley Hinson is one of two Republicans running to challenge Finkenauer in November.
  • Iowa’s 2nd congressional district (June 2nd): Rita Hart is the only Democratic candidate in this open-seat race. Hart ran and lost as a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Iowa in 2018 and is running again in 2020 for the U.S. House. Marianette Miller-Meeks is one of five candidates vying for the Republican nomination.
  • Iowa’s 3rd congressional district (June 2nd): Incumbent Representative Cindy Axne (D) won her seat for the first time in 2018 by two points. There are no Republican women vying for this seat.
  • New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district (June 2nd): Incumbent Representative Xochitl Torres-Small defeated Yvette Herrell (R) in 2018 by just under 2 points. Herrell is one of two Republican women running to challenge Torres-Small this year.
  • South Carolina’s 1st congressional district (June 9th): Two women are running for the Republican nomination in this district, including State Representative Nancy Mace who made national news in 2019 when she spoke openly on the House floor about being raped at age 16 to oppose an abortion bill that included no exception for rape. Mace was also among the first women cadets at The Citadel.

U.S. Senate

There are eight U.S. Senate contests being held this year in the 12 states holding primaries on June 2nd and June 9th. Women are candidates in six of eight of those Senate contests, including incumbent Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), who are favored to win re-election this fall. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) will also compete in a special Senate election in November. Six Democratic women are running in two primary contests – in Georgia and Iowa – in early June to challenge incumbents in contests deemed competitive by Cook Political Report.

Governor

There are four gubernatorial primaries in being held in the next two weeks in Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Republican incumbent men are favored to win re-election in all but one of those contests; Montana’s open-seat race is currently rated as a toss-up and Whitney Williams is one of two candidates running for the Democratic nomination.

Stay Tuned

CAWP will continue to track women's candidacies throughout the 2020 cycle, not only keeping track of how many women are running for office, but also where they are running and how well represented they are among all candidates on primary and general election ballots. In monitoring gender trends, we will continue to provide nuanced analyses not only by party and levels of office, but also with an eye to race type and competitiveness to ensure that any predictions for women’s gains in representation come 2021 are not over-stated. As we cautioned in the 2018 cycle, the work to achieve gender parity in American politics will not be done in any single election cycle. The 2020 election will offer some important opportunities for women to break new barriers and increase representation, including opportunities in states holding primaries in the next two weeks, but the work to achieve gender parity among candidates and officeholders will continue beyond this year. 

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).