State Watch

Women make record-breaking gains across state legislatures


Women broke barriers in state legislature races across the country last month, with a record number of women from both parties winning their races at the state level.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women will hold more than 30 percent of seats in state legislatures for the first time in American history.

At least 1,684 women will serve as state representatives in 2021. That’s up from the previous record of 1,641. And at the state Senate level, at least 552 women will serve as state senators in 2021, besting the prior record of 521.

These numbers are likely to change as well, as there are 76 female candidates in races that have been deemed too close to call.

The gains women made at the state legislature level this cycle appeared to have reflected the record gains women made at the federal level as well.

“These two stories are the same,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “The results of the state legislatures are mirroring the story that we saw at the congressional level.”

For Republicans, this marks an improvement for a party that has struggled to recruit women to its ranks.

Seven hundred and thirty-nine Republican women were elected to state legislatures this year, besting their previous record of 706 women; 183 women were elected as state senators and 556 were elected as state representatives.

GOP operatives say they are reaching out to women candidates at the state level and giving them access to the resources needed to run a successful campaign.

“Unfortunately for a lot of candidates, especially on the state and local level, they don’t know that it’s actually beneficial to knock doors, and why we knock doors, and why we don’t go door-to-door but data-driven doors,” said Kamilah Prince, the recruitment director for the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).

“We really try to provide that information as well, like the substance, the hows, the whys and what we need to do to win,” she added.

One of the ways that the RSLC says they are doing this is through the Right Women, Right Now initiative, which provides candidates with training, mentorship and digital organizing tools.

Still, state-level Republican women remain behind Democratic women in terms of representation. There will be roughly twice as many Democratic women serving in state legislatures as GOP women, according to Walsh.

“This has to be the beginning of a pattern of support — recruiting and supporting Republican women in winnable districts at the state legislative level and at the congressional level,” Walsh said.

“If the goal is gender parity in these institutions, it has to be that both parties are doing the heavy lifting,” she said.

More than a thousand Democratic women — 1,480 to be precise — have been elected so far this cycle to state legislatures across the country, beating their previous record of 1,467. Democrats will have 358 women serving as state senators and 1,122 serving as state representatives.

Democrats argue they’ve been successful with recruiting women up and down the ballot because they have made diversity a priority.

“In the Democratic Party, we prioritize representation [and] we prioritize women in leadership,” said Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Post cited the committee’s own chairwoman, New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), as well as the Democratic-controlled Nevada legislature, the Colorado state House and the New Mexico state House, all of which are majority female.

“It’s very similar to what you’ve seen where companies make better decisions where they have diverse boards,” Post said. “State legislatures legislate in a more representational way to make more progress in their states when they have a more diverse composition.”

Female Republican and Democratic candidates agree that the coronavirus pandemic has enormously affected how they campaigned this cycle, with many candidates juggling household and family work along with their day jobs and campaigning.

“In particular, this cycle was a really tough process [for] women, in part in the same way the pandemic has disproportionately affected women — dropping out of the workforce, from home care to child care,” said Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, a progressive group dedicated to recruiting young people to run for office.

While the task of campaigning during a pandemic, when many candidates were left to do virtual rallies and Zoom town halls, was daunting, female candidates at the state level found they were able to have a shared experience with voters, particularly women, who were also juggling work and home duties.

“To see these kinds of numbers in the face of all of that is, I think, pretty encouraging,” Walsh said.

Ultimately, the increase in women serving at the state legislature level is likely to strengthen the pipeline of women seeking higher office. A number of incoming female federal lawmakers in the House, such as Reps.-elect Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) and Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), previously served as state legislators.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 46 former state legislators served as senators during the 116th Congress, while 198 served in the House.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), along with Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), are examples of women at the federal level who served previously in state legislatures.

“Electing more qualified women at the state level is one of the first steps to seeing more women represented at the federal level,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Winning for Women Action Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing GOP women to public office. “The work of groups like the RSLC and others helps grow a pipeline of qualified women candidates who learn how to legislate and impact their communities at a local level.”

Seeing the pipeline in action is a recruiting mechanism in itself for many women considering a run for office.

“For many of them they will be the first woman or one of the first women of color to run for these positions that they’re thinking about taking on, which means there really isn’t a path or a model to follow,” Litman said.

Tags Ilhan Omar Joni Ernst Lisa Murkowski Maxine Waters Pramila Jayapal women state legislatures democrat republican election races seat gains campaign

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