WOMAN OF THE HOUSE
Female Candidates Are Key to Flipping State Houses for Democrats
Democrats are vying to take up to 14 state houses this November, another battleground in the ‘Year of the Woman.’
The Colorado women dubbed the “Fab Five” have been each other’s bosses, mentors and co-workers. They’ve volunteered at each other’s nonprofits, and participated in each other’s weddings. Now, they hold the keys to flipping their state Senate.
Colorado Democrats have a chance, for the first time in years, to score the coveted trifecta: control of the state House, Senate, and governorship. They already have a majority in the lower chamber, and are widely expected to keep hold of the governor’s mansion. Their control of the Senate comes down to one just one seat—and it’s female candidates who could make the difference.
It’s a trend that’s playing out across the country. Riding the “blue wave,” Democrats are vying to take between four and 14 state houses this November. And while all eyes may be on the congressional elections, experts say these state races are where the “Year of the Woman” could truly resonate.
“State governments are on the front lines of legislative issues that directly impact women and families every day,” said Lindsay Crete, deputy director of campaign communications for women’s political action committee Emily’s List. “At the national level, those races are pivotal in the policies affecting women and families across the country, but the community-by-community change is going to be led by Democratic women.”
The number of women locked in competitive local races this year is historic, though perhaps unsurprising. A record number of women ran for state office this year, and a record number won their primaries, according to data compiled by Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Emily’s List said that more than 40,000 women contacted it about running for office after November 2016—so many that the group had to knock down an office wall to make room for additional staff.
The surge in female candidates is almost entirely due to Democratic women: Of the nearly 3,400 women running for state legislatures this year, almost 2,400 of them are Democrats. And while Republicans currently control the vast majority of state legislatures, it’s Democrats who are expected to make the most gains this year.
“All of the energy, generally speaking, is on the Democratic side,” said CAWP associate director Jean Sinzdak. “Democratic women are certainly going to benefit from that momentum.”
Take Tammy Story. A first-time candidate for Colorado’s 16th Senate District, her past jobs include speech pathologist and cabinet-maker. She’ll tell you she decided to run after successfully ousting conservative members of her local school board, and that she really just wants to improve public education. Experts say her race against Republican incumbent Tim Neville is one of the most likely to turn the state Senate from red to blue.
Another race features Faith Winter, a Democratic state representative who made headlines last year for publicly accusing a fellow legislator of harassing her. A former environmental lobbyist and staunch family-leave advocate, Winter left her House seat after two terms to take on incumbent Republican Senator Beth Martinez.
Both Martinez and Neville, Story’s opponent, narrowly defeated their Democratic challengers in 2014. But both districts went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and progressive groups now think they are likeliest to flip in November. As a result, millions of dollars have flowed into the districts to boost Winter and Story’s campaigns.
Colorado’s three other most competitive Senate races also happen to feature Democratic women: Kerry Donovan, Jessie Danielson, and Brittany Pettersen. These are highly contested seats that Democrats need to hold on to, not flip, but progressive groups often talk about them together, earning the women their “Fab Five” nickname.
“Those are the five races that will flip the Senate from Republican back to Democrat,” Donovan told the Aspen Daily News. “We’ve kind of embraced it. It’s a great way to talk about these races and we’re supporting each other as a team.”
Flippable, an organization that works to transform state governments from red to blue, is especially interested in Winter, Story and Danielson. According to CEO Catherine Vaughan, the group chose the races based on data: They were the districts that most heavily favored Democrats in the 2016 presidential election and seemed most likely to flip based on legislative results and polling.
But when Flippable met the candidates in person, Vaughan said, they were blown away.
“They are people who have been working for decades in Colorado on issues that really matter to the state,” Vaughan told The Daily Beast. “They had been leaders in their community, through either holding elected office or leading organizations that were doing this work.”
Between the three of them, Story, Danielsen, and Winter have more than doubled their Republican opponents’ fundraising hauls. The five together have raised a total of $1.1 million, compared to their opponents’ $400,000, according to tallies released last month. Several of them have racked up endorsements from politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and all are backed by Emily’s List.
When they can, the women try to combine their campaign efforts—a potentially awkward undertaking eased by the fact that all know one another well, whether through progressive organizations or the state House. They’ve held joint phone banks and door-knocking sessions, and hosted a fundraiser with former Texas state senator Wendy Davis.
“It’s been a privilege to be able to partner on the elections, because the community wants to see us all succeed,” Danielsen told The Daily Beast. She added jokingly, “When it’s possible, we make it easy on them to do that.”
If the Fab Five succeed in helping Democrats take back the state Senate in November, they won’t be the only women to do so.
This summer, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee announced 17 candidates it thought could flip eight different chambers in 2018. Ten of those candidates were women. Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, launched a national fundraiser this fall for the 30 candidates it believed could flip state houses. Twenty-five of them were women. Vaughan said Flippable is supporting more than 130 candidates this election cycle, and about 90 of them are women.
Experts are eyeing Anna Kaplan, a former child refugee turned city councilwoman, to flip the one seat Democrats need to take back the New York state Senate. In Wisconsin, liberals are pinning their hopes on farmer Kriss Marion and Girl Scouts leader Lee Snodgrass to claim two key districts. And in Florida, where Democrats are plotting an ambitious five-seat flip, the majority of the candidates are women.
Experts have attributed this groundswell of Democratic women to the #MeToo movement, or a backlash to Donald Trump, or just a general rise in feminine rage. But when it comes to women running for state government, Vaughan thinks there’s something else to it.
“These offices are lesser-known and not as glamorous as congressional offices, where you get to fly to Washington every week and you’re on national news,” she explained. “It’s really focused on doing the work, which—as we know—women are often in the position of doing without getting much credit.”
The state races are certainly not as glamorous, or as well publicized, as the battle for control of Congress. (The first page of Google results for “women flip state houses,” for example, includes an article extolling the virtues of a woman’s touch in home design.) But every expert interviewed by The Daily Beast said local politicians had a far greater impact on women’s daily lives than their D.C. counterparts.
“Right now there’s not a single state legislature in the country that has an equal number of women—of any political party—serving with men,” Crete said. “This lack of a gender parity really has significant implications for policies that impact women, especially women’s reproductive rights.”
Laws governing abortion access, for example, are decided almost entirely at a local level. After a massive red wave in 2010, state legislatures passed more than more than 200 new abortion restrictions over the next five years, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In the same time period, more than a quarter of all U.S. abortion clinics closed their doors, according to a Bloomberg Business report. The single greatest factor cited was new legislation.
Tim Neville—the Republican incumbent that Story wants to “help retire,” as she puts it—is a prime example of an anti-abortion state politician: He’s sponsored legislation making women wait 24 hours before getting an abortion, and opposed federal funding for international programs that offer information on the procedure. In 2015, he parked a “pregnancy crisis” van across the street from the state capitol to drum up support for one of his bills.
Story said she’d work to reverse that record if elected to the Colorado senate.
“He puts forward these notions that are just so out of touch with women and their right to healthcare,” she said of Neville. “He believes that anyone performing an abortion should be prosecuted, and that’s just crazy. That would take us back.”
State governments are also pivotal when it comes to addressing sexual harassment. While Congress has failed to complete a single piece of sexual harassment legislation since the start of the #MeToo Movement, about half of all state legislative chambers have made at least some change to their policies, according to the Associated Press. About six states stepped up disclosures of sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers, and around one-fifth of the states now allow for external investigation of complaints.
The issue is personal for Winter, who last year made sexual harassment allegations against fellow representative Steve Lebsock. Her decision to come forward—which she told The Daily Beast was “the hardest thing I’ve done”—led to 11 complaints against Lebsock from four other women, and his expulsion from the House.
“It was really hard on my family, but ultimately it was the right decision because we did change the culture of the capitol,” Winter said of her decision to speak out. “The culture down there changed because I came forward, and that matters.”
In the wake of Lebsock’s departure, Winter served on an interim committee to improve workplace culture. While it made some progress, the panel is deadlocked on how to adjudicate complaints of sexual misconduct: Republicans want complaints reviewed by a panel of other legislators, while Winter and fellow Democrats want to include a human rights expert, victim’s advocate and employment lawyer. Whether Winter gets her dream policy comes down to whether Democrats take back the Senate.
“When I win, and we implement the new rules next year, we will have a panel that looks [Democrats’] way,” she explained. “If I lose, then we won’t.”
As crucial—and occasionally personal—as these policies are, some experts say the most important impact of women running for office is not in legislation, but in representation. Sinzdak calls it the “role model effect:” Women who see people like them in office are more likely to run themselves.
“For a long time if you ran for office as a woman, especially as a first time candidate, you could feel like you were running on your own,” Crete said. “And that’s not the case this year, there are so many women who are lifting each other up and organizations who have really said, ‘We have your back.’”
In fact, it’s likely the Fab Five wouldn’t have existed without this kind of support network. Before taking office, Winter and Danielson co-founded Emerge Colorado, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women candidates. It also happens to be the place Story took her first class in campaigning. Petterson was also a mentee of Winter’s in a different leadership program, and now sits on the advisory board for Emerge. All three candidates who are leaving the House to run for the Senate recruited other women to run for their sets.
Winter said she doesn’t want this effort to get lost in breathless talk about the “Year of the Woman.” Five women didn’t wind up running in the most pivotal races in Colorado because of a march or a hashtag, she emphasized: It took a concerted effort to get them there.
“History likes to say Rosa Parks just sat down on the bus one day because she was tired,” Winter said. “Actually it was years and years of organizing and training and planning and recruiting to get to that point. You have to do the organizing work.”