The Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday was a big night for women in a state whose 20-person congressional delegation currently includes only men. The state has been represented in Congress by just seven women in its history—three of which filled vacancies left when their husbands died—with at most two serving together at any one time. After this November’s elections, the currently all-male delegation will include at least one woman, and probably more than one, thanks to a few notable wins in the Democratic primaries.
Women won the Democratic nominations in both the 5th and 6th districts, which are considered to be two of the most flippable congressional districts in the country. In the 6th, where the Republican representative decided not to seek re-election, Navy veteran and former teacher Chrissy Houlahan ran unopposed as a Women’s March–inspired political outsider. The 5th was a much more heated contest. The seat was left open by GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan, who chose not to run after it was reported that he had settled a sexual harassment suit with taxpayer money. (Incidentally, much of the district is represented in the statehouse by a man who allegedly abused a fellow legislator he dated, making the possibility of a female replacement for Meehan seem seem even sweeter.) In the end, lawyer and school board member Mary Gay Scanlon beat out five women and four men, several of whom were highly qualified and backed by national Democratic stars, including Sen. Bernie Sanders. Scanlon’s closest competitor, former federal prosecutor Ashley Lunkenheimer, trailed her by more than 13 points. On the Republican side, Pearl Kim ran unopposed, meaning this district will almost certainly elect a female representative come November.
This race got a bit of press because resistance candidate Molly Sheehan, a scientist and political newcomer, revealed that state Rep. Greg Vitali had asked her to drop out and support him over Scanlon. (She said he would have never asked that of a man; he said he has done so in the past.) Though Vitali was polling in second place earlier this month, Sheehan ended up beating him by just under 1 percentage point, putting him in fifth place. In the end, it would have made just as much sense for Vitali to leave the race and encourage his supporters to vote for Sheehan—though those two groups of voters together still couldn’t have beaten Scanlon. The results in this race, where three out of the four candidates with the most votes were women, disproved the theory advanced by some pundits who believed too many women in the race would split the women’s vote and leave the Democrats with a male nominee.
Tuesday’s most-watched race was in the 7th District, where GOP Rep. Charlie Dent officially retired last week. Former Allentown solicitor Susan Wild bested anti-abortion district attorney John Morganelli by just over 3 points, with Afro-Latino Greg Edwards, a pastor who was also backed by Sanders, coming in third. For the feminist groups that backed Wild, the primary results were a satisfying climax to a drama-filled campaign. Several weeks before the primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put out feelers to see if either Edwards or Wild would consider dropping out of the House race to enter a downballot state senate race instead. When it looked like the DCCC was favoring a white, anti-choice man who has criticized the party for being “the de facto party for illegal immigration,” the Wild and Edwards camps got mad. The Democratic Party’s “consultant-driven strategy seems to prefer milquetoast candidates who they believe can appeal to moderate Republicans over progressive candidates of color,” a spokesman for the Justice Democrats, a left-wing group, told the Washington Post. “This is what systemic racism looks like.” Progressive activists, including Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour, slammed Wild, too, for protecting a police officer who broke the jaw of an unarmed robbery suspect by kicking him in the face.
Democrats like Wild have a legitimate shot at winning what were once Republican strongholds, after Pennsylvania’s congressional districts were redrawn earlier this year by the state Supreme Court, which determined that the previous map was gerrymandered in the GOP’s favor. Wild’s newly shaped 7th District would have gone for Hillary Clinton by a point; the Cook Political Report currently favors her to win. The 4th District will almost definitely go to a female Democrat, too, after state Rep. Madeleine Dean won the nomination with 73 percent of the vote. Dean was one of three women—two state representatives and a gun-control advocate—who were already running for the nomination, when former Congressman Joe Hoeffel decided to enter the race in March. He was a latecomer, but his long history in Pennsylvania politics meant he had a lot of name recognition in the state, even though he’d left Congress 14 years ago and left public office altogether in 2012. Dean’s fellow state legislator Mary Jo Daley dropped out to support her, and Hoeffel ended up coming in last place with 11 percent of the vote.
Earlier this week, I argued that men like Hoeffel, who consider themselves progressives and advocates for women’s equality, should stop looking at races with three less-experienced but highly qualified women as opportunities for an easy win or a comeback. If Democrats are serious about getting more women into office, some white men are going to have to decide, as women have for generations, that not every race is theirs to win. Hoeffel didn’t end up posing much of a threat to Dean, in part because of Daley’s decision to drop out. But for a while, he led the polls, due to his longstanding profile in the district. Now that Dean has won in a landslide, the race is a good case for treating the safest-seeming, best-known, best-polling candidates with some skepticism.
That’s not to say that the Democratic women Pennsylvania nominated on Tuesday aren’t solid bets. Most are relatively moderate, as were the male Democrats that won, and many have drawn criticism from advocates on the left. But their successes in an overwhelmingly male-dominated political landscape are a significant shift, especially when paired with the increased likelihood that Democrats will notch some more House victories as a result of the new electoral map. Wild’s narrow win over Morganelli was a particularly salient victory for women; putting an anti-choice man in Congress who’d deny safety and humanity to immigrants—he argued in a candidate forum that local governments should cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agencies—would do little to safeguard the women’s rights under threat today. Wild was able to beat him with the help of major feminist organizations, including EMILY’s List and NARAL, which both sent their presidents to campaign with her in the days before the primary. EMILY’s List also spent large sums on TV ads and direct mail in support of Wild and against Morganelli. Their efforts were bolstered by NextGenAmerica—billionaire Tom Steyer’s PAC—and Planned Parenthood. The two organizations teamed up on a six-figure investment for digital ads, mailers, and door-to-door canvassing against Morganelli, targeting pro-choice voters with a special focus on young voters and pro-choice Latino voters.
Planned Parenthood is trumpeting Wild’s win as a testament to the power of all-in feminist organizing. “Together, these programs helped make the difference,” the organization said in a press release. “In April, some polling estimates had Morganelli up over 20 points.” Like Hoeffel and Vitali, Morganelli benefited early on from his name recognition. Then, as voters got to know the women running against these men—and, in the case of Morganelli, his anti-choice and anti-immigrant views—they shifted their support.
They were helped along by nudges from EMILY’s List, which offered funding to Dean’s campaign in addition to Wild’s, helping both women get their names in front of voters. The post-Trump wave of women running for office has inspired many female candidates to leap over initial barriers to declaring a first run for office or a bid for a higher one; the Democratic Party will do what it can to help its female candidates win their general elections in November. It’s in the space between, the primaries, where women-focused dollars from groups like EMILY’s List do their best work. With better-known Democratic men on the ballot, targeted investments may have the power to turn women from candidates to nominees.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus