As of Tuesday’s primaries, a record number of women have secured major-party nominations for this November’s U.S. House elections. Democratic and Republican voters have nominated 185 women in House races so far, toppling the previous record of 167 nominees in 2016. And there may be even more women nominees to come, with 94 additional female House candidates running in upcoming primaries and one state runoff. (Three women in Washington are still waiting for the final results in their too-close-to-call races, too.)
That jump in absolute numbers from 167 to 185 obscures the real source of this gender shift. The previous record for Democratic women House nominees came in 2016, when there were 120. This year, there are 143. Meanwhile, just 42 Republican women have secured House nominations, the smallest cohort in a decade.
After the 2016 election, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women told me that Donald Trump ignited “excitement and enthusiasm” among conservative women, providing a “natural springboard” for them to run for office. The numbers don’t bear out that claim. In March, Politico counted 494 women running for the House and Senate; 76 percent of them were Democrats. This enthusiasm gap has also manifested at the polls. In the 2018 primaries, Democratic women running for House seats have mostly bested their male opponents. NPR reports that in open Democratic primaries with both genders represented in the candidate pool, women have won 69 percent of the time. In Republican races under the same circumstances, only 34 percent of female candidates have won.
Past research has shown that women are elected and re-elected at the same rates as men in comparable races. At the same time, a 2016 poll reported that a plurality of both Republicans and Democratic men said they’d be more likely to vote for male candidates than female ones, while Democratic women were the only group that said they prefer female candidates.
When Democratic women haven’t succeeded this year, it’s often because they’ve lost to other Democratic women. In one Pennsylvania district, six women and four men were on the Democratic ballot. A woman won that race, but five others inevitably lost.
Progress in gender equity within the Democratic Party won’t necessarily lead to a major gender shakeup in Congress. Many of the female Democratic nominees are running in heavily Republican districts they are all but certain to lose; others are running against incumbents, who enjoy a substantial statistical advantage. And though 185 seems like a lot of candidates, there are still far more men running for House seats, in part because this year saw a surge of new male candidates in addition to female ones. The New York Times reported in May that even if a female candidate won in every district where a woman was running, men would still outnumber them by almost 2-to-1 in the House. (Women currently hold 84 of 435 seats in the House, or 19.3 percent.)
Still, advocates for greater representation for women in Congress see a few heartening trends in the types of women running for office. Historically, women have waited to run until they have a ton of experience and a good chance of winning. Men have not. (In one survey, 79 percent of women said the first office they’d seek would be local, compared to 67 percent of men—and twice as many men as women said they’d pick a federal position as their first.) Thus, female candidates on the ballot have often had better qualifications than their male counterparts. This imbalance is a demonstration of women’s logical decision-making, not succumbing to imposter syndrome: Some research has shown that when comparing candidates of equal quality, men win more often than women. In other words, an excellent female candidate will only fare as well as a mediocre male one.
But this election cycle, women aren’t letting a relative lack of experience hold them back, according to analysts at the Center for American Women in Politics. That may not bode well for the 2018 midterms—in addition to the barriers they face in voter perception, inexperienced women sometimes choose to run in districts that heavily favor their opponents—but it’s a good precedent for future elections. Voters of all genders will get accustomed to seeing female first-time candidates with varying levels of experience, following their campaigns, and watching a few succeed. With role models like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congressional candidate who’s already become a national celebrity despite having never held public office, women may stop waiting to hit traditional thresholds of readiness before filing to run—and if female candidates with low-to-average levels of experience become the norm rather than the exception, the biases in voter perception may finally begin to shift. Today’s record-breaking roster of female candidates is best interpreted as an investment in gender equity, not an immediate payout.
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