Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth
WASHINGTON — Women running in governors’ races throughout the country are potentially set to break records if elected this November.
Michigan is practically guaranteed to have a female governor next year, with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer facing Republican nominee Tudor Dixon. Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader, was elected in 2018. The state has elected one other female governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm — who’s now U.S. energy secretary — who was first elected in 2002.
In total, there are 25 women governor candidates nominated by the two major political parties this election cycle, sharply up from 16 in 2018.
Democrats hold 16 of those nominations, with nine GOP women candidates seeking the role of governor, according to a press briefing Tuesday by the Center for American Women and Politics.
The current record of nine female governors serving at the same time, first set back in 2004, could be broken if voters elect enough of those women to governors’ seats.
That, however, might be the extent of the record-breaking this year.
The number of female candidates running for Congress has dipped slightly compared to the record high levels reached in 2020 and the last midterm elections in 2018.
“For the past two cycles, much of the attention to women candidates (was) centered around the record number of women running for and winning office,” said CAWP Scholar and Director of Research Kelly Dittmar.
“In a year where we’re seeing fewer records broken across levels and across parties—with I would say the notable exception of gubernatorial contests and the specific records for women of different racial and ethnic groups—we do see a tendency to do one of two things,” she added.
The first development, Dittmar said, is that there is less attention being paid to women running, a decision that “really ignores the important ways in which gender is still shaping women’s decisions to, and experiences while running.”
The second would be a conclusion that women are backsliding from reaching equal representation in electoral politics just judging from the numbers in one campaign cycle. That’s not clear, she said.
“There’s no doubt that we should be attentive to these trends as signs of caution and dig deeper into why we aren’t seeing a continued upward progress in the numbers of women candidates and nominees across all groups,” Dittmar said. “But we should also remember that this is a single cycle, and one coming after two record-breaking years.”
First female governors
CAWP Director Debbie Walsh said during the briefing for reporters that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who became the state’s first female governor after Andrew Cuomo resigned amid several sexual harassment allegations; Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat; and Arkansas GOP candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders are all expected to be elected as their states’ first female governors.
Healey and Oregon gubernatorial nominee and former state House Speaker Tina Kotek, also a Democrat, would become the first openly lesbian governors, if elected.
And Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams would be the first woman governor of the state and the first Black woman governor in the United States, if elected, Walsh said.
Arkansas, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma and Rhode Island could possibly become the first states in history to have women serving as both governor and lieutenant governor, if elected, breaking even more records.
Dittmar and Wash both said despite the possible uptick in women governors, there continue to be barriers to women running for elected office and stereotypes about whether women should hold executive positions, such as governor.
Ad shows a candidate in labor
The two noted that there have also been significant changes in how women campaigning for office talk about their personal lives, especially motherhood, as candidates.
Referencing an ad from Louisiana Democratic U.S. House candidate Katie Darling, in which she shows images of herself in labor and then nursing her son in her hospital room, both experts said it marked a major shift from past election ads.
Dittmar said that this ad as well as two during the 2018 cycle that showed women nursing their newborns and one that showed a woman’s ultrasound moved women toward “really using their motherhood and their identity and their childbirth as saying ‘I understand most innately and am most committed to these issues in the future because of my children.’”
“And obviously, I wouldn’t discount the role here as we talk about Dobbs and having an image like this, in this case for a Democratic candidate,” Dittmar said, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which the conservative justices overturned the constitutional right to abortion.
Walsh said the Darling ad marked a departure from even just a decade ago. She noted that when former Massachusetts acting Gov. Jane Swift gave birth to twins while in office, people said she was unfit to continue in the role.
“If you think about the change over time, where a woman would not even talk about the fact she had young children in a campaign because voters would say ‘Well, who is going to take care of your kids if you’re elected?’ to a point where you have a newborn literally while the campaign is going on in your ad and that is now an asset,” Walsh said.
“It is just kind of mind-boggling to think about how that has changed even in the last really 10 years,” she added.
Women deterred from running
But obstacles to fundraising, threats of violence, different expectations about enacting policy or fixing problems and negative stereotypes about women continue to affect when and how many women seek elected office, they said.
“Those are still barriers that we need to break through,” Walsh said. “And hopefully this year with the crop of gubernatorial candidates we have, we might—might—see that record broken.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed this story.
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