Record numbers of women eyeing political office in 2018

Image: From left, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mas
From left, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, raise fists during a photo opportunity with the Democratic women of the House on Jan. 4, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Copyright Cliff Owen AP file
By Carrie Dann and Catie Beck with NBC News
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Of the 397 women running in the House, either for the first time or in a re-election bid, 317 are Democrats.

WASHINGTON — In November 2016, Debbie Walsh was worried.

Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, feared that attendance at the group's upcoming campaign crash course for female political candidates was about to plummet. After all, the first female presidential nominee of a major party — a former First Lady, senator and secretary of state, to boot — had just been defeated by a man with no previous political experience and a well-documented record of demeaning comments about women.

"After the election, I was concerned that no women would want to come. I thought maybe they'd just be too discouraged by the outcome," she says.

But by springtime, organizers of the nonpartisan "Ready to Run" program faced a different problem. They had to move the yearly summit to a larger venue due to exploding demand. New registrations for the program doubled over previous years, and similar events in states as far-flung as Utah and Oklahoma reported the same deluge.

Now, a new flood of women — many of them Democrats who watched the election of Donald Trump with horror and disbelief — are raising their hands to run for office in 2018, signaling a potential reprise of a "Year of the Woman" that could make 1992's election of two dozen new women to the U.S. House pale in comparison.

They're on track to break almost every record on the books. As of last week, 325 women were non-incumbent candidates for the United States House, along with 72 female members seeking reelection, according to data compiled by Walsh's organization. Thirty-eight women not currently serving in the United States Senate are aiming for the upper chamber, along with 12 incumbents running again. And 75 women have set their sights on the nation's governorships — plus four female incumbents fighting to keep their seats.

In 2016, a high water mark for female candidates overall, there were 167 female major party nominees for the United States House and 16 for the Senate — well fewer than half the number of candidates vying for one of those spots now.

'A generational moment'

While some of the cycle's high-profile campaigns feature Republican women — including hopefuls like Arizona's Martha McSally, who famously said in her Senate campaign announcement that the GOP should "grow a pair of ovaries" — a women's wave in 2018 would almost certainly be the result of a surge of Democratic candidates.

Ample evidence in public polling shows that women are paying close attention to what's happening in government, and they don't like what they see from the man in the White House. Trump's approval rating among all women was a dismal 33 percent in a January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, with more than half — 56 percent — saying they strongly disapprove of his performance as president.

When asked which party they'd like to see control Congress after the 2018 election, men in the same poll were about evenly divided between the parties, while women favored Democrats by 12 percentage points.

That Democratic energy is reflected in the number of female candidates, particularly at the congressional level. Of the 397 women running in the House, either for the first time or in a re-election bid, 317 are Democrats.

Emily's List, an organization dedicated to electing Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights, also saw an unprecedented number of inquiries from women seeking state or local office after the election. In the month after Election Day 2016, 1000 women contacted the group for guidance about running for office, more than the 920 who sought out the organization in the entire 2015-2016 campaign cycle. Now, organizers say, their ranks are 26,000 strong — and growing.

Emily's List president Stephanie Shriock says that Trump's election and the subsequent Women's March — as well as the rise of the #metoo movement to expose sexual harassment — all sparked Democratic women's enthusiasm to launch new campaigns. But, she adds, their candidates remain most powerfully fueled by opposition to the GOP on policy grounds.

Image: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. poses with women members of the House
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. poses with women members of the House for a photograph on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 4, 2017. Cliff OwenAP file

"Our real motivation now is what this Republican Party is doing to us" on issues like taxes, education, health care and reproductive rights, Shriock says. "Women are saying 'Yes, I want my voice heard. I need to do this for my family, for my community, for my state.'"

Elissa Slotkin, a former Defense and intelligence official now running as a Democrat in Michigan's eighth congressional district, says that women have also been activated to run because of congressional gridlock and what they view as an assault on basic rights and values.

"I feel we're going through a generational moment right now," Slotkin says. "We're going through a pendulum swing. And women feel like they need to do more to defend rights that they thought were understood."

"A diversity of perspectives"

One trend that extends to female candidates on both sides of the aisle is the rejection of what activists call outdated notions of a woman's path to elected office. While many women once considered a long career in local government or an advanced degree to be prerequisites to run, the new crop of contenders features first-timers who range from military veterans to pediatricians to community business leaders.

"We need a diversity of perspectives to get good policies, a diversity of professions, life experiences, race and geography," says Shriock. "We've been waiting for this moment. We've encouraged teachers and nurses and scientists and businesswomen. We sometimes have to remind women that you don't need a law degree to run for office."

And, whether they are motivated by dislike of Trump or not, many women with unconventional backgrounds took notice of the fact that the man in the White House was elected even though a majority of voters in exit polls said he lacked the right qualifications for the job.

"Nobody came and begged all these women to run," Walsh says. "They woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and said, 'Well, if he can do it, so can I.'"

On the Democratic side, candidates getting buzz from Washington insiders include former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill; former State Department advisor Lauren Baer, who would be the first woman to be in a same-sex marriage while serving in Congress; pediatrician and Vietnam War refugee Mai-Khanh Tran; Kim Schrier, also a pediatrician; retired Marine Corps combat fighter pilot Amy McGrath; and 28 year-old Iowa state legislator Abby Finkenauer, who would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

For the GOP, the list includes female candidates like Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Lea Márquez-Peterson; California assemblywoman Young Kim, who would be the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress; attorney and farmer Tiffany Shedd; former Las Vegas TV reporter Michelle Mortensen; and Michigan oil industry executive Lena Epstein.

Epstein, whose family owns one of the largest distributors of automotive and industrial lubricants in the country, says that her upbringing in a male-dominated industry prepared her well for the challenges of a congressional run. But, she adds, she doesn't want her gender to be boiled down to "identity politics," either.

"I can assure you that I am the strongest candidate to represent the citizens and focus on the 11th district in Congress, regardless of gender," said Epstein, who served as Michigan co-chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. "I am prepared, as a business owner, as a job creator, as a wife, as a mother, and a concerned citizen."

1992 and now

In 1992, commentators declared the midterm elections "The Year of the Woman" when a record two dozen women won election to the House for the first time and the three women newly elected to the Senate tripled the number of female lawmakers in the upper chamber.

Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, sees strong parallels between that year's female candidates — many of whom were galvanized by Anita Hill's 1991 grilling by an all-male Senate panel about her allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — and those motivated by the #metoo movement of today.

Then and now, Lawless says, "there is this general call that women would be able to legislate in a way that was more honest and trustworthy because they are political outsiders, that there are these entrenched men who have generated a whole bunch of scandals and are behaving very badly."

"It's a very explicit male-vs-female dynamic," she adds.

And, certainly, some female candidates aren't shy about pointing out the advantages they have over their male counterparts at a time when scores of men in power are being confronted over bad behavior.

Dana Nessel, a Democratic candidate for attorney general in Michigan, may have been the one to put it most bluntly.

"Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?" she deadpans as she looks into the camera in a campaign video. "Is it the candidate who doesn't have a penis? I'd say so."

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