What Pennsylvania’s Female Candidates Could Tell Us About the Midterms

The state votes in its primaries Tuesday, and a record number of women are on the ballot.

Molly Sheehan, a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, talks to a voter at a Democratic forum in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Oct. 15, 2017.
Molly Sheehan, a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania’s 5th District, talks to a voter at a Democratic forum in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Oct. 15.
Tim Reid/Reuters

Since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, two narratives have shaped conventional wisdom about the Democratic Party. One is that the party is flirting with an ideological crisis, forcing establishment Democrats to decide whether their future lies with more progressive candidates who can turn out the base or more conservative Blue Dogs who might appeal to Trump voters. The other narrative anticipates a more unified path. It posits that women, enraged by the ascent of Donald Trump and sick of watching men in power drop the ball, are poised to flood the ballots this year, winning seats in public office in record numbers.

This week’s Pennsylvania primary may bring clarity to both forecasts. In the race for an open congressional seat vacated by a retiring Republican in a district Hillary Clinton won, the Democrats vying for the party’s nomination include an anti-abortion, Trump-flattering moderate; an Afro-Latino Bernie Sanders–backed populist; and a former city solicitor who has drawn both enthusiastic support from EMILY’s List and criticism for her record on police brutality. And across the state, there’s been a notable spike in female candidates. The number of Pennsylvanian women who filed for 2018 U.S. House races is triple the size it was in 2016.

Pennsylvania seems like a perfect testing ground for the theory that 2018 may be the next Year of the Woman, the term for the 1992 election of an unprecedented number of women (four!) to the U.S. Senate. For one thing, the congressional map—recently redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after it found the previous one biased toward Republicans—has given hope to Democrats running in former GOP strongholds. And the purple state lags far behind most others when it comes to equitable gender representation in public office: There are no women among the 20 legislators who represent the state in the Senate and House, none in statewide office, and precious few in the state Legislature, which is 81 percent male. Pennsylvania placed 38th, tied with South Dakota, in a recent ranking of U.S. states by proportion of women in state legislatures. Like those in many other states, Pennsylvania’s female first-time candidates have largely been inspired by movements like the Women’s March and calls from advocacy groups for women to step into leadership roles after Trump’s election. Penn Live reports that the majority of women gunning for state Legislative seats in central Pennsylvania come from activist circles, not the business communities or independently wealthy set that often produce first-time candidates.

But Tuesday’s primary could end up popping the bubble of optimism inflated by indicators like the 2017 election, which saw several historic firsts and victories rich in symbolism, including a transgender woman beating an incumbent transphobe and a political newcomer ousting a county freeholder whom she decided to challenge after he made a dismissive joke about the Women’s March. As the New York Times reports, more than half of the women vying for the U.S. House and Senate this year are running against incumbents, who are statistically likely to win under any circumstances. And some women are running against each other, usually in Democratic primaries, which cancels out some of the gender-representation boost among candidates, since only one woman can win in those races. Six women, for instance, are on the Democratic ballot in Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District this week, along with four men.

The 5th District presents something of a test case for hopes of a surge in female winners this November. Rep. Patrick Meehan, the current officeholder, decided not to run for reelection after it came out that he’d settled a sexual harassment claim with taxpayer money. One possible front-runner was also downed by sexual harassment complaints, issued by former staffers. A woman winning would feel like poetic justice. Because of the crowded ballot, the Democratic primary winner won’t have to get anything close to a majority of votes, making the race easier for a less experienced candidate with a passionate base but no widespread name recognition. Still, analysts have opined that the six women may divide and weaken the votes of the female electorate, paving the way for a male victor; one recent poll found that 61 percent of currently undecided Democratic voters are women. To complicate matters further, the GOP’s candidate, Pearl Kim, is a woman, too.

The gendered implications of the race are not lost on the candidates. One of the male candidates, state Rep. Greg Vitali, asked resistance-favorite Molly Sheehan, a first-time candidate who’d out-fundraised him, to end her campaign and endorse him against front-runner Mary Gay Scanlon. Sheehan, who believes Vitali would have never asked a male competitor to drop out of a race, described his mindset like this: “Get out of the way, ‘qualified’ man coming through!” For her part, Scanlon told WHYY she feels “a little sorry” for the men in the race. “But it’s not their time. It’s been their time for decades, centuries, but it’s not their time now.”

That argument doesn’t hold water with Democrats who’d rather side with ideological purity in down-ballot primaries. Bernie Sanders just gave a last-minute endorsement to progressive Rich Lazer, Philadelphia’s former deputy mayor of labor and one of the four male candidates in the 5th District. The Lazer-affiliated Middle Class PAC has reportedly spent almost $1 million on TV ads for him, more than any other candidate has spent on TV, yet he’s still polling in the single digits, behind at least four other candidates.

Unlike Sanders, EMILY’s List—an organization that funds pro-choice female candidates—is throwing its support behind candidates that look likely to win. EMILY’s List didn’t make any endorsements in the 5th District, but it has put money into the campaign of Madeleine Dean, who’s running for the U.S. House in the state’s Fourth Congressional District. Dean is running for the Democratic nomination against gun-control advocate Shira Goodman and former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel. Dean’s fellow state representative, Mary Jo Daley, was in the race for a while, too, but ultimately decided that she didn’t want the three women to split the vote and hand the win to Hoeffel. Daley opted to endorse Dean in an effort to avoid “blowing a rare occasion to elect a strong, progressive woman from Pennsylvania to Congress.” Goodman told WHYY that she didn’t think EMILY’s List should favor one pro-choice woman over another in the same race.

The idea that female voters will likely support female candidates—and the fear that multiple female candidates will cancel one another out and deliver the office to a man—may not be based in reality, at least as far as Democratic primaries are concerned. Studies have shown that in primaries, Democratic voters show slight preferences for female candidates. (Republicans voting in primaries prefer male candidates by a much higher margin.) Vitali wouldn’t have asked Sheehan to abandon her candidacy if he didn’t think she was attracting more would-be Vitali voters than would-be Scanlon ones.

But the drama of Pennsylvania’s jam-packed primaries does illuminate a few barriers to getting equitable gender representation in government. Proponents of electing more women into office often talk most about the biggest obstacle: getting them to run at all. Women who decide to run for office are usually more qualified and ambitious than the average male candidate, women of color even more so. They are less likely to think themselves fit for a political role and more likely to fear the emotional and logistical challenges of a political run. Add that to institutional bias toward incumbents and friends-of-friends within the party, and you’ve got a lot of great potential candidates who never consider running. This year’s historic wave of female candidates is, in itself, a promising sign that advocates have chipped away at this major stumbling block.

But getting a woman into office takes more than a candidacy. It takes a primary win, support from party leaders, and, usually, a lot of money. It will also take allies. Hoeffel entered the Fourth District race late in the game, just two months ago, when he saw that three less-experienced women were the only ones running for the Democratic nomination. He left Congress 14 years ago to make an unsuccessful Senate bid and has been out of public office since 2012. Perhaps, in this historic year for women, in a district with three qualified women running, he could have dampened his impulses toward opportunism and sat the election out. In 2016, two progressives in Colorado launched Can You Not PAC to fund women, people of color, and LGBTQ people running for office. The PAC’s foremost pillar, indicated by its name, was convincing straight white men to consider not running against them. Women who would have made excellent candidates have supported the candidacies of Democratic men for generations. Male politicians who style themselves progressive advocates for gender equity would do well to return the favor.

The question of fundraising to advance female candidates is inherently politically fraught, creating another barrier to a win. If EMILY’s List wants a woman to represent a district where more than one are running, it may endorse one over another—often, the one that’s polling better—to funnel money into the race. Goodman accused EMILY’s List of putting its finger on the scale by funding her female competitor in Pennsylvania’s Fourth District. But EMILY’s List is not the Democratic Party; advocacy groups and PACs have no mandate to let primaries play out as they will. The group has attracted criticism from progressives for favoring a corporate lawyer backed by an EMILY’s List donor and former employee over resistance candidate (and former Slate writer) Laura Moser in a Texas congressional race. The more women decide to run for office, the more competition there will be for women-designated dollars, and the more susceptible feminist activists will be to the pitfalls of a zero-sum mindset.

Of course, not all female candidates are equally deserving of feminist support. Take Susan Wild, a congressional candidate in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, who as Allentown solicitor defended the actions of a police officer who broke an unarmed suspect’s jaw with a kick to the face. She’s running against John Morganelli, a prosecutor who has tweeted thirstily at both Donald and Ivanka Trump looking for jobs, and Greg Edwards, a populist pastor alongside whom Sanders has campaigned. (The race has gotten national press in part because a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee representative put feelers out to see if Wild or Edwards would be willing to drop out of the race and run for state Senate instead.) Earlier this month, Women’s March co-chair and former Sanders supporter Linda Sarsour co-wrote a statement in support of Edwards that scolded EMILY’s List for funding Wild’s campaign. “We’re particularly disappointed that Emily’s List, instead of supporting Greg, has decided to invest heavily to back Susan Wild, a candidate who has defended police brutality and opposed local gun reform efforts,” the statement read. EMILY’s List would never back a male candidate—that would run counter to its mission, as Sarsour, who has built an entire activist mobilizing mechanism around gender, undoubtedly knows. A legislature with more women will statistically be more progressive, but efforts to elect women don’t have to prioritize progressive principles over gender. That’s a truth Sanders, who’s chosen to endorse a no-chance male candidate over several qualified women in Pennsylvania’s 5th, knows well.