Will 2019 state legislative elections foreshadow gender trends in 2020? Here are some data points to watch.


Today is Election Day in Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia.[i] Either one or both chambers of each state’s legislature is on the ballot in this off-year election, giving us a chance to identify gender trends before the bulk of states hold state and federal elections in 2020.

1. Are more women on the ballot in 2019?

The charts below show recent trends in the number of women state legislative nominees in each state by chamber and party. What they reveal is that the number of women who made it through their party primaries is higher in 2019 than in the previous election in every case. While the increase in women nominees for the Virginia Senate was notably higher (+64%) than recent cycles, gains in women’s nominations across other chambers are more modest. Perhaps most notably, while the number of women nominees for the Virginia House of Delegates increased by 68% from 2015 to 2017, the increase from 2017 to 2019 is just 19%.

2. Do women represent a greater share of the candidate pool in 2019?

The table below tells a positive story; women are a greater proportion of all state house and senate nominees this year than in each previous cycle. Gains in raw numbers of women nominees are less notable if they are matched by increases among men. In order to evaluate the representativeness (at least vis-à-vis gender) the candidate pools in state legislative contests, we must consider women nominees’ share of all major-party lines on this year’s general election ballots.

3. Will Republican women see gains in 2019?    

Women made historic gains in election 2018, but those gains were limited to Democratic women. Likewise, Democrats were responsible for the historic gains for women in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2017. Partisan differences persist in 2019, with Republican women representing a smaller proportion of all major-party nominees than Democratic women in each state holding legislative elections tomorrow. Most notably, Republican women are less than 30% of Republican nominees in all chambers, while Democratic women are more than 30% of nominees in all but one chamber holding elections tomorrow. In Virginia’s House of Delegates election, women outnumber men among Democratic nominees. 

While Republican women still represent a smaller share of their party’s nominees this year, they make up a larger share of their party’s nominees than they did in the previous cycle in each chamber’s contests. Moreover, as the charts above indicate, Republican women’s nominations increased in nearly every chamber this year compared to the previous cycle.

4. Are women poised to make gains in state legislative representation in 2019?

One way to assess women’s chances of gaining seats in 2019 is by looking at the type of races in which they are nominees. As the charts below show, women are nominees for more open seats (no incumbent running) in 2019 than in the previous cycle in Virginia and Mississippi house elections. They are a greater number of challengers to incumbents this year than in the previous cycle in contests for the Virginia Senate, New Jersey Assembly, and Mississippi House. While challengers typically fare worse than incumbents and candidates running for open seats, the success of women challengers in Virginia in 2017 (30% win rate) and Congress in 2018 should caution predictions of their demise this year.

Stay tuned to CAWP for our post-election analysis of this year’s contests on Election Watch, where we will provide the definitive answer about women’s gains (or not) in state legislative seats.

5. How far are we from reaching gender parity in these state legislatures?

On Election Day 2019, women hold 28.9% of all state legislative seats nationwide. Women’s state legislative representation currently ranges from 13.8% (Mississippi) to 30.8% (New Jersey) in the states holding elections this year. While we may see gains as a result of the 2019 election, gender parity will almost certainly remain elusive in these state legislatures. It would take women nominees winning in nearly every district in which they are running to achieve gender parity in Virginia’s state legislature, while gender parity is impossible as a result of this cycle in both New Jersey’s and Mississippi’s legislatures.

Does any of this foreshadow what we’ll see in 2020? If so, these data should urge both optimism and caution. In 2019, women are better represented on state legislative ballots than previous cycles, but the increases in women’s candidacies are smaller than we saw going into the 2017 cycle. Moreover, partisan disparities persist and, even with an increase in women candidates, gender parity in state legislatures is an unlikely result of this year’s elections. Similar trends are worth watching for in election 2020.

[i] Kentucky is also holding statewide elections today and Louisiana will hold state legislative and statewide elections on November 16, 2019.

Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden 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).