Women Built the 2018 Midterm Blue Wave — but the Last One Washed Them Out

In 2006, Democrats rode opposition to the president into control of Congress, but women were left behind.

OLATHE, KS - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids poses for a photo with a crowd of supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)
Sharice Davids with a crowd of supporters during an election night party on Nov. 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kan. Photo: Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Twenty-seven years ago, Anita Hill sat before a Senate committee and explained that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. At the time, only two women served in the upper chamber, and neither were on the Judiciary Committee.

The optics of Hill’s hearing, along with the events that led up to and followed it, drove a record number of women to action — and into the Senate.

In 1992, the year following the hearing, now famously known as the “Year of the Woman,” Americans voted four women into the Senate. That constituted a historic, 100 percent increase in the number of sitting women senators: Barbara Mikulski’s re-election pushed the total to seven (North Dakota’s first female senator Jocelyn Burdick, appointed to fill her husband’s seat after he died, did not run for re-election). That included the first African-American woman to serve in the chamber, Carol Moseley Braun. And it wasn’t just the upper chamber: The number of women in the House almost doubled from 30 to 48.

Amid another era of historic reckoning with sexual harassment and hostility toward women in the workplace, men are again falling out of positions of power. The #MeToo movement has taken down some 200 men from the worlds of government, corporations, and media. And women have been replacing them, almost one for one.

Though Democratic women have historically outnumbered their Republican counterparts, blue waves like the one that came to pass Tuesday excluded women more often than not.

In politics, that’s a fact most evident in the massive number of women — 589 — who have run, or said they’ll run, in races this year for the Senate, House, and governor’s mansions.

Yet the wave of women candidates is not always what it seems. Election observers tend to conflate the advancement of women in electoral politics with Democratic gains. While women are certainly, if slowly, increasing their numbers in the legislative branch and across statehouses, the correlation between Democratic victories and victories for women hasn’t always been as strong as many think. This is true even in recent elections, as this year’s momentum for a clutch of Republican women shows.

Though Democratic women have historically outnumbered their Republican counterparts, blue waves like the one that came to pass Tuesday excluded women more often than not.

Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill is surrounded by family as she accepts cheers from supporters after being elected over incumbant Republican Sen. Jim Talent during an election watch party Wednesday morning,  Nov. 8, 2006, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Claire McCaskill is surrounded by family after being elected during an election watch party on Nov. 8, 2006, in St. Louis. Mo.

Photo: L.G. Patterson/AP

People forget what happened in 2006.

Americans were beginning to sour on the Iraq War in large numbers, and swing voters who backed President George W. Bush in 2004 were moving to support Democrats.

EMILY’s List, the well-known Democratic political action committee that supports pro-choice women, endorsed 43 candidates for Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. Nineteen won — four senators, 12 representatives, and three governors. In total that year, 148 women were elected to Congress, and six became governors. The push put Nancy Pelosi in the seat of the speaker of the House — the first woman to hold the position.

Pundits and analysts memorialized the win as a teachable moment for Democrats. It was a replicable model. The party picked up 32 seats and flipped both the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, despite criticisms that the candidates who won were too centrist. Naftali Bendavid’s popular book, “The Thumpin’,” chronicled the then-chair of the moderate Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Rahm Emanuel’s successful strategy.

These pundits, though, miss one point.

While a record number of women served in the 110th session of Congress — as has been the case each Congress since — the legislative branch was still overwhelmingly male. In 2006, Americans elected eight men and two women — Amy Klobuchar and Claire McCaskill — to begin new terms in the Senate, bringing the chamber total to 84 men and 16 women. Of 53 newly elected representatives, 10 were women, bringing the House total to 361 men, almost five times the number of women at 74.

In 40 districts rated as competitive in 2006, men won all but eight of the seats between the parties — two of those went to Republican women. The majority that came in was also male-dominated: Women who mounted primary challenges that year were all but completely wiped out.

This year, women challenged their male counterparts in record numbers. “The women who are running are very well aware of the fact that they could lose,” said Julie McClain, EMILY’s List campaign communications director.

“EMILY’s List exists because we believe you get better policy outcomes when you have more women at decision-making tables across the country, at every level of government,” she said. “With more women running, you will get more women winning.”

Still, there are reasons — especially in 2018 — for people who want to see women in power, and not just in the Capitol, to be reasonably optimistic.

While Democratic waves haven’t always included women, what has endured is the growing number of women in the pipeline. “What we find so exciting about this cycle is that we’ve had more women than ever before, by several degrees, 1,000 degrees, reaching out to us for help running for office,” McClain said. “Both this year, but for cycles to come. Women who are making running for office part of their life plans.”

This year’s surge is an equal reflection of grassroots momentum that’s been building for decades, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told The Intercept.

“Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first African-American woman elected to Congress, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm,” Lee said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “She was elected 50 years ago on November 5. And we worked with a variety of women around the country to lift her legacy up and to encourage women, and African-American women, to run for office, to be involved in campaigns and in get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Lee pointed out that four women are poised to chair important House committees, and that three of them are women of color. Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., are in line to chair, respectively, the House Financial Services, Small Business, Science, Space and Technology, and Appropriations committees.

“We have an unheard of number, an unprecedented number of women of color running for state, local, and federal races this year.”

After Rep. Robert Brady’s retirement from Pennsylvania’s 1st District earlier this year, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is technically next in line to chair the House Administration Committee. She also serves as ranking member on the powerful Judiciary Committee, which will almost certainly be chaired by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. Lofgren’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“We have an unheard of number, an unprecedented number of women of color running for state, local, and federal races this year,” Lee said. “And so I just think the moment is here where women say, ‘We’re not going back … and we’re going to run for public office,’” Lee said.

“I think it’s going to be women, really, quite frankly, who are going to take control of this country,” she continued. “Women are mounting races that are really unheard of. They’re smart, they have experience, and they’re bringing their perspective to policy, to their constituents, that has not been there. And they’re authentic.”

Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar is greeted by her husband?s mother after appearing at her midterm election night party in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Miller     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC194080F1B0

Ilhan Omar is greeted by her husband’s mother after appearing at her midterm election night party in Minneapolis, Minn., on Nov. 6, 2018.

Photo: Eric Miller/Reuters

EMILY’s List followed the relative disappointment of 2006 by fervently backing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House in 2008. Her eventual loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic primary sent the group looking for ways to regain its footing.

This year has changed all of that. The number of women in Congress is expected to reach another record at 117. At the time of publication, women won 96 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate, and nine women out of the 16 who ran are headed to governors’ mansions.

More than 250 women, including 83 incumbents, won primaries this year — 233 in the House and 22 in the Senate. And, according to McClain, hundreds more are waiting in the wings.

“We believe that with more women in Congress and more women in state legislatures, the way that we prioritize legislation will be more advantageous for women and families — which is sorely lacking,” she said.

At the state level, McClain continued, that means “adding more voices of women in other communities who have not always been equitably treated by their state and local governments.”

“By adding more women to the ranks of Congress, and then seeing more women who have been serving move up in the leadership,” she said, “we will see better policy outcomes.”

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