The 2020 primaries are over. Here’s what you need to know about the record numbers of women nominees.
This week marked the end of the regular primary election season of 2020. Louisiana’s congressional contests and Georgia’s special U.S. Senate election will be conducted as jungle primaries on November 3, 2020 (women candidates are still eligible for major-party nominations in Louisiana’s 1st and 5th congressional districts, as well as Georgia’s special U.S. Senate election). Pending these potential increases later this fall, the Center for American Women and Politics can confirm that more women are nominees for U.S. House of Representatives in 2020 than ever. Putting these aggregate numbers into context offers additional insights into women’s nominations over time, across parties, as well as clarifying racial and ethnic diversity in the candidate pool.
Here are some key take-aways from this year’s totals.
A record number of women – including Democratic and Republican women – are nominees for the U.S. House this year.
The 2018 election broke nearly all records in women’s major-party nominations for the U.S. House and Senate. That year, 234 women were nominees for the U.S. House, up from the previous high of 167 (+40.1%). In 2020, 298 women are candidates for the U.S. House, a 27.4% increase from the record set two years ago.
The rise in women’s House nominations in 2018 was almost entirely due to Democratic women’s primary election success; 182 Democratic women were U.S. House nominees in 2018, compared to a previous high of 120 (+51.7%), while the 52 Republican women nominees fell short of their record high (53, -1.2%) by one. In 2020, by contrast, Republican women’s increase in House nominations is larger than the increase among Democrats. This year, 94 Republican women are nominees for U.S. House, a 77.4% rise from the previous high and an 80.8% rise from 2018. Democratic women’s nominations are also at a record high this year, but their jump is more modest; 204 Democratic women U.S. House nominees in 2020, a 12.1% increase from their previous high set in 2018.
Both Democratic and Republican women broke records for U.S. Senate major-party nominations in 2018. In 2018, 23 women were U.S. Senate nominees, up from the previous high of 18 (+27.8%). In 2020, 20 women are already nominees for the U.S. Senate, with nominations for women possible in Georgia’s U.S. Senate special election (November 3, 2020). Even with outstanding nominations, women are not likely match or exceed the previous high for women Senate nominees. Unlike in the U.S. House, both Democratic and Republican women contributed to the record-breaking Senate numbers in 2018; 15 Democratic women were nominees for the U.S. Senate in 2018, up from a previous high of 12 (+25%), while the 8 Republican women nominees broke their previous record of 6 (+33.3%). In 2020, three fewer Democratic women are nominees for the U.S. Senate than were in 2018 (-20%) and the Republican women have matched their record for Senate nominations ahead of November’s jungle primary, where Republican incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) will fight to keep her seat.
The increase in the number of women House nominees was larger from 2016 to 2018 than from 2018 and 2020, though Republican women’s House nominations have seen the largest rise over the past two election cycles.
Democratic women increased their nominations by just over 50% from 2016 to 2018. This year, Republican women have seen an even larger jump from the previous cycle; Republican women’s House nominations increased from 52 to 94 (+80.8%) between 2018 and 2020. While Democratic women have continued to see progress in nominations from 2018 to 2020, their gains are smaller (+12.1%) this cycle. Because Democratic women remain the majority of women nominees, the overall increase in women’s House nominees is smaller this year (+27.4%) than it was between 2016 and 2018 (+40.1%).
As noted above, the number of women U.S. Senate nominees is not at a record high in 2020. In contrast, the number of women’s Senate nominations increased by over 50% between 2016 and 2018, with increases for women in both parties.
While women remain underrepresented among all nominees for elected office in 2020, they are almost at parity with men among Democratic nominees for the U.S. House.
Women are more than 50% of the U.S. population, but remain less than 36% of all major-party nominees for congressional and statewide executive offices in the 2020 election. More specifically, women are 35.6% of all U.S. House nominees and 30.8% of U.S. Senate nominees as of September 2020. In addition, while many statewide elected executive offices around the country are not up for election this year, women make up just 34.1% of nominees for these offices in 2020.
Consistent with previous elections, women are better represented among Democratic than Republican candidates in 2020. Notably, however, women are almost at parity with men among Democratic nominees for the U.S. House in 2020; women are 47.9% of Democratic House nominees this year, with some nominations outstanding in Louisiana. Women are 37.5% of Democratic Senate nominees, and 41.8% of Democratic nominees for statewide executive offices as of September 2020. In contrast, women are 22.9% of Republican House nominees, 24.2% of Republican Senate nominees, and 25.4% of Republican nominees for statewide executive offices.
While women continue to fall short of parity with men in nominee pools, they are a greater percentage of all nominees for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate this year than they were in 2018, and both Republican and Democratic women are a larger percentage of their respective parties’ House and Senate nominees in 2020 than in 2018.
A major contribution to gender disparity among congressional nominees is women’s continued underrepresentation among incumbents. While women are, for example, 25.4% of incumbent House nominees, they are 44.7% of challengers and 43.3% of open-seat nominees already on general election House ballots. Democratic women will actually outnumber their male counterparts among both open-seat nominees and challengers on November ballots.
These trends vary somewhat in U.S. Senate contests, where more Republican than Democratic women incumbents are up for re-election this year, while Democratic women far outnumber their male counterparts as nominees for open U.S. Senate seats and near parity with men as challengers to Senate incumbents. The potential implications of these numbers for actual election outcomes are detailed below in the review of specific congressional contests and assessment of potential gains for women overall and among newcomers.
A record number of women of color are nominees for the U.S. House in 2020.
At least 115 women of color – including women who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander (API), Black, Latina, Middle Eastern or North African (MENA), Native American, and/or multiracial – are nominees for the U.S. House in 2020. This number is higher than any other election year. The numbers of Democratic (82) and Republican (33) women of color House nominees are also record highs. As of September, racial identification is unavailable for 4 (4D) women House nominees (from 2004 to 2020, unavailable cases range from 0 to 4).
More specifically, U.S. House nominations are at a record high for Black (61), Latina (32), and Native American (6) women in 2020. The number of Asian or Pacific Islander (API) women House nominees is short of the previous high, but that might be explained in part by a shift in CAWP’s available codes for candidate race; for the first time in 2020, CAWP included Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) as an option in our requests for women candidates’ racial self-identification. Without that option, some women candidates in previous years may have chosen API. It is also important to note that women who identify as more than one race are counted here within each racial group they select, but are counted only once in our aggregate number of women of color nominees.
Women of color are also a larger percentage of all women nominees for the U.S. House this year than in any other year since this data has been collected. Women of color are at least 38.6% of all women, 40.2% of Democratic women, and 35.1% of Republican women House nominees in 2020.
In contrast to the gains and representation of women of color among House nominees, they remain severely underrepresented in U.S. Senate contests. In 2020, just three women of color – all Democrats – are nominees for the U.S. Senate. Sara Gideon (D-ME), who is South Asian and white, is challenging Senator Susan Collins (D-ME) in a general election contest currently rated as a toss-up by Cook Political Report. Paulette Jordan (D-ID), who is Native American, will challenge incumbent Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) in a general election contest currently rated as “Solid Republican” by Cook Political Report. Likewise, Marquita Bradshaw (D-TN), who is Black, is the Democratic nominee in Tennessee’s open-seat Senate contest, which is currently rated as “Solid Republican” by Cook Political Report. In comparison, just one woman of color was a U.S. Senate nominee in 2018.
To date, only 5 (5D) women of color have ever served in the U.S. Senate, including Senators Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). In contrast, 69 white men currently serve in the U.S. Senate.
Even in a record year for Republican women candidates, Democratic women are the majority of women nominees for the U.S. House in 2020.
As we noted in our post-filing analysis of women candidates, it is important to celebrate the rise in and record number of Republican women’s candidacies and nominations in 2020, especially due to the persistent underrepresentation of Republican women in the U.S. Congress. But there remains a partisan gap in women’s nominations. In 2020, 68.5% of women nominees for the U.S. House are Democrats. While that gap was larger in 2018 (77.8% of women House nominees were Democrats), this year’s party gap is still larger than what we saw more than a decade ago. This is true as well among women of color nominees, where the party gap is smaller this year than in recent elections. Still, while 28.7% of the women of color House nominees are Republicans in 2020, 32.4% of women of color nominees were Republicans in 2004.
These data points merit additional context. According to the most recent Pew Research Center survey on party identification, about 38% of women identify as Republicans and 56% identify as Democrats. If we assess representativeness in the candidate pool by party identification breaks by gender among the public, the numbers above indicate a less concerning story for Republican women; if 38% of women in the population are Republicans and nearly 32% of women nominees are Republicans, the gap in representativeness is smaller than if we were to assume the party break among women should be 50/50. These data do not, however, resolve the persistent underrepresentation of women in either party’s total pool of candidates.
Women’s success on Election Day 2020 will be tempered by the distinct political conditions in their electoral contests, including the record number of all-woman congressional races this year.
Gains for women officeholders as a result of this year’s election can be measured in two ways. First, will the overall representation of women increase? And second, how many new (non-incumbent) women will be elected to the 117th Congress? The magnitude of these gains – despite the record level of women House nominees – will be tempered by the types of contests in which women are competing. Moreover, due to the record number of competitive all-woman general election contests, many of which feature incumbents, it is possible that we will see a larger jump in new women members than we see in overall women members taking office in January.
On the first measure of women’s representational gains, our point of departure is the current level of women’s representation. There are currently 101 (88D, 13R) women in the U.S. House and 16 (17D, 9R) women in the U.S. Senate. In 2020, 5 (3D, 2R) women House incumbents are not running for re-election, which means that reaching a new high for women’s House representation in 2021 will first require making up for these losses. There are no retirements among women Senate incumbents up for election this year, but Senator Kamala Harris’ success as vice presidential nominee would result in a potential loss of an incumbent woman in the U.S. Senate in 2021.
On the second measure of new women officeholders, our points for comparison are previous highs for non-incumbent women’s success. In 2018, a record 36 (35D, 1R) non-incumbent women won election to the U.S. House. This included a record high (35) for non-incumbent Democratic women House winners, but was not a record high for Republican women. The previous high for non-incumbent Republican women elected to the U.S. House in one cycle was nine, set in 2010. In the U.S. Senate, 5 (4D, 1R) new women senators were elected in 2012, the highest in any single election cycle to date. That year, as well as 2016, marked the high for new Democratic women (4). The single-election high for new Republican women senators is two, which was set in 2014.
What gains will women see in the U.S. House?
As of September 16th, eight Democratic women non-incumbent nominees are favored to win in House seats not currently held by women. In California and Washington, where the top two finishers in a mixed-partisan primary advance to the general election, another four Democratic women non-incumbent nominees are in two all-Democratic woman general election contests (in CA-53 and WA-10), which all but guarantees two pick-ups for Democratic women this fall. Six Republican women non-incumbent nominees are also favored to win in House seats not currently held by women. There are three more all-woman general election House contests that will result in pick-ups for women in IA-2, IN-5, and TX-24. Combined, these gains could be as great as 16 (10D, 6R) new women in the U.S. House in 2021.
Another 15 (8D, 7R) non-incumbent women nominees are in House contests currently rated as toss-ups by Cook Political Report, including 3 (3R) non-incumbent women nominees challenging women House incumbents. This means that – from these contests – the maximum gain for new women overall will be twelve and the maximum gain in seats held by women would be nine (5D, 4R).
There are 4 (4D) women House incumbents in mixed-gender toss-up contests, which could result in net losses in women’s representation. Another 7 (7D) women House incumbents are in contests that may be deemed vulnerable (“Lean Democratic”), including 2 (2D) who are being challenged by Republican women. As noted above 5 (4D, 1R) incumbent women in the House are not running for re-election this year.
Together, the current forecasts point to a likely gain in women’s representation in the House in 2021, though the size of that gain is unclear. It will be very hard for the size of the freshman class of women in the 117th House to match that of women in the 116th House, but – if all works in their favor – Republican women could match or exceed their previous record high of nine non-incumbent women House winners in one cycle.
What gains – if any – will women see in the U.S. Senate?
In the U.S. Senate, the prospect of any significant gain in women’s representation is especially bleak and the possibility of a loss in representation is real. As of September 16th, just one non-incumbent woman Senate nominee – Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) – is strongly favored to win in November. Another possible gain is in Kansas, where Barbara Bollier (D-KS) is the Democratic nominee in an open-seat contest currently rated as “Lean Republican” by Cook Political Report. The only other non-incumbent women Senate candidates in competitive contests (according to Cook) are in Maine and Iowa, where they are challenging incumbent Republican women Senators and would thus not alter the number of women in the U.S. Senate.
In addition to the two Republican women senators vulnerable to defeat by other women, two more Republican women – Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) – are facing strong competition in November. In addition, a Biden-Harris win in the presidential race would yield another loss for an incumbent woman senator, at least in the short-term; Harris could be replaced by a woman.
Together, the current forecasts point to no guarantee of a gain in women’s U.S. Senate representation overall in the 117th Congress (and a potential loss in representation). The prospects for record levels of representation are stronger for Democratic women, who could increase their representation from the current high of 17, but that will hinge on Republican incumbents’ defeats. In terms of new women, today’s Senate forecasts do not indicate that a record number of non-incumbent women will win senate contests this year overall or in either party.
This post was updated on November 20, 2020 to reflect Maine Senate candidate Sara Gideon's racial identification as South Asian and white and including her among the three women of color nominees for the U.S. Senate in election 2020.