Democrats hoping that 2018 will mark a watershed moment in terms of sending women to Washington got a Texas-sized helping of good news on Tuesday. In the first-in-the-nation primary, where turnout easily beat recent records, female candidates outperformed expectations in several competitive races, many of whom were up against better-known or better-funded male counterparts.
More than half of the roughly 50 women running for Congress in the state, most of whom are Democrats, either won their primary or advanced to runoffs on Tuesday. Lupe Valdez, a progressive former Dallas County sheriff who also happens to be gay and Latina, barely missed winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination outright over Andrew White, a Houston businessman and the son of a former governor who has deep pockets. And the strength of this crop of female candidates looks even stronger the further you zoom in on the five seats Democrats hope they can flip in November.
The Democratic nominees in all five of those races, like the one for governor, will be decided in a runoff in May since no candidate cracked the necessary 50-percent threshold needed win outright on Tuesday. All five congressional runoffs feature at least one female candidate in the final two. In fact, the top vote-getter in four of the five was a woman, and two of those five runoffs will be women-only affairs.
The most striking of these victories came in the 21st Congressional District, where the retirement of Rep. Lamar Smith has opened up a potentially competitive seat. The only woman in the four-candidate Democratic field, Mary Wilson, finished first on Tuesday, with 31 percent of the vote—this despite raising only $40,000 over the past year, only a fraction of some of her fellow candidates. Wilson, a former math teacher who entered the race as a long-shot, will now go head to head with Joseph Kopser, who raised about 20 times what she did. But Wilson has already outlasted two other men expected to finish in the race ahead of her.
In the 23rd Congressional District, two women outperformed a male challenger who was thought to be one of the front-runners. In that race, where Democrats hope to unseat Rep. Will Hurd, Air Force vet Gina Ortiz Jones, an out lesbian with the backing of LGTBQ and veterans groups, finished first with more than 40 percent of the vote, more than twice that of any of her rivals. A second female candidate, Judy Canales, missed the runoff by about half a percentage point, but notably still drew more support than Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who was thought to be one of the leading candidates. Hulings spent heavily in the primary and had the backing of Joaquin and Julian Castro, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He got 15 percent of the vote—good enough only for fourth place.
In the most closely watched race on Tuesday, journalist and activist Laura Moser survived a nuclear attack launched from Democrats in D.C. to finish second with 24 percent—just behind another female candidate, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Fletcher and Moser were the only two women in a seven-candidate field that included cancer researcher Jason Westin, who along with Fletcher was endorsed by the Houston Chronicle; and Alex Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive who’s been near the top the fundraising leaderboard.
In the 31st Congressional District, where Democrats hope to knock off Rep. John Carter, the two women in the four-candidate primary, Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar and Christine Eady Mann, together won nearly 80 percent of the vote and will proceed to a runoff, while the two men in the race will now head home. In the 32nd Congressional District, where Democrats want to take out Rep. Pete Sessions, the only woman in the seven-candidate primary, Lillian Salerno, finished second and made the runoff, in the process beating out a male challenger who had made a name for himself on local TV news.
Elsewhere in Texas, two other Democratic women won their respective nominations in deep-blue districts where the incumbent isn’t running for another term. If things go as expected, then come November, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia will share the distinction (possibly with others as well) of being the first Latinas elected to Congress from Texas.
It’s not entirely clear yet whether this represents a surge in women’s turnout, or what it portends for November. But it was hardly a given a few months ago. Texas is not a place where female politicians have traditionally thrived. None of the five districts targeted by the DCCC have ever sent a woman to Congress. In fairness, the 31st and 32nd districts have only been around for a decade and a half, but the state’s track record is only marginally better. Texas has sent only one woman to the Senate, and only six to the House, since it joined the union more than 170 years ago. Only three of the state’s current 36-member House delegation are women, and the two Democrats, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Sheila Jackson Lee, represent two of the state’s deepest blue districts. The Lone Star State has had two female governors in its history, but the first, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, was elected only after her husband was impeached as governor and she promised Texans that she’d follow his advice, giving them “two governors for the price of one.”
With more than twice as many women running for Congress this year as did two years ago, Democrats, women’s group, and like-minded allies have good reason to hope the tide is finally turning. The results so far in Texas should only buoy their spirits further. Yes, this particular crop of female candidates in Texas will still face headwinds as they move from the Democratic primary to the general election in conservative-leaning districts. But many of them have already proved capable of surviving rough waters not of their own making.
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