Races to Watch: Women Candidates in Election 2018

February 27, 2023

Some of Gender Watch 2018’s expert contributors have shared the races that they are watching most closely as we head into this fall’s election. Stay tuned.

Sayu Bhojwani
Arizona’s Race for Attorney General: January Contreras vs. Mark Brnovich

Election Day 2018 promises to be historic in so many states, for women and people of color. In particular, Arizona could make history with two statewide races, one to elect David Garcia as Governor, and the other to elect January Contreras as the state’s first ever Latina Attorney General.  January is a uniquely qualified candidate, having been an advocate for abused children, victims of domestic violence and seniors in her roles in Maricopa County, the Office of the Attorney General and in the Department of Homeland Security.

But her race is more than about her. It signals a shift in the electorate in Arizona, which is younger, browner and more progressive and contributed to the record turnout in last week’s Arizona primary. Before Trump, Arizona had Arpaio. Energized by anti-immigrant policies, practices and platforms, progressive activists from immigrant communities and beyond are helping to ensure higher turnout among Arizona’s voters who are often neglected by parties and campaigns.

New Yorker article following the election mentions people like Jessica Rubio and Alejandra Gomez, Latina advocates who themselves have participated in the New American Leaders candidate training programs and whose names will one day be on the ballot.  Along with January, they’re the names to watch out for.

Christina Bejarano
Latina and Native American Women Candidates for Congress and Governor

Women of color are getting increased political attention this election, both as key voters and political candidates. Their recent campaigns are also broadening our traditional political models for candidates and their campaigns. I am watching to see how women of color candidates are navigating the unique challenges that can come from their distinction of being the ‘first’ in their campaigns. In particular, I am watching some Latina and Native American women candidates, particularly the congressional races of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia, Sharice Davids, and Deb Haaland; as well as the gubernatorial races of Michele Lujan Grisham, Lupe Valdez, and Paulette Jordan. I’ll be considering the level of media and voter attention these minority women candidates attract and whether the likely heightened attention to them brings advantages or disadvantages to their campaigns.

Erin Cassese
Delaware’s U.S. Senate Primary – Kerri Evelyn Harris vs. Tom Carper

I’ve got my eye on the Democratic primary race for the Delaware Senate, where insurgent Democrat Kerri Evelyn Harris is running against long-time incumbent Senator Tom Carper. In many ways, Harris epitomizes several common trends in 2018 midterm races – she’s a young, progressive candidate whose campaign is predicted on her credentials as a community activist and retired Air Force loadmaster. And she’s challenging a more experienced, centrist, establishment opponent. Harris’s underdog status in underscored by a large disparity in fundraising. She’s eschewed corporate PAC money, while Carper has managed to amass a large war chest from corporate donors. In spite of this, many are calling this the most competitive primary Carper has faced in his political career. Harris’s campaign is hitting Carper hard on his corporate ties and his past voting record for confirming federal judges, notably his 2006 vote to appoint Brett Kavanaugh to the federal bench – though Carper says he will not support Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Harris has received an endorsement and support from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez– who’s unexpected victory in a similarly mismatched primary against 10-term House member Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th District has garnered national media attention. The women held two Town Hall events in Delaware on Friday, where they discussed their shared working-class backgrounds, their backstory of mutual campaign support, and stressed their common platforms. With their spirit of collaboration and talk of coalition building, Harris and Ocasio-Cortez seem to be offering a fresh alternative to the old boys’ club.

This high-profile endorsement aside, Harris is certainly the underdog in this race. A Gravis poll from late July has Carper leading by a wide margin, though 30 percent of voters were still undecided at the time. Democratic voters may be thinking ahead to the general election as well. Two of Delaware’s three counties are pivot counties – meaning they shifted from supporting President Obama to President Trump in 2016. But at the same time, voter registration among Republicans is down statewide compared toDemocrats, and the number of unaffiliated registrants is steadily increasing. Shifting political loyalties in the state raise a few questions about the outcome of this race, but the Cook Political Report is classifying it as noncompetitive. We’ll find out soon whether Harris can snatch a victory from Carper – the Delaware primary is September 6th. If elected, she will be the first openly gay woman of color to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Rosalyn Cooperman
Virginia’s 10th congressional district – Barbara Comstock vs. Jennifer Wexton

VA-10, featuring two-term Republican incumbent, Barbara Comstock, against Democratic State Senator, Jennifer Wexton, is the House race I’m following most closely. As Virginia has moved into “blue” territory in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections, VA-10 is the remaining “red” district in Northern Virginia. In 2016, Representative Comstock outperformed Donald Trump in the district, which was won by Hillary Clinton. The district is comprised of upper middle-class, suburban bedroom communities to D.C. with many federal workers and military personnel calling the 10th home. With those constituencies in mind, Comstock has sponsored legislation to combat opioid addiction, provide paid parental leave for federal employees, and improve veterans’ health care and has scrupulously avoided any overt association with President Trump.

This race, presently identified as “lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report, is both highly competitive and expensive. EMILY’s List endorsed State Senator Wexton the day after she bested fellow Democrats in a crowded primary election contest. Both Comstock and Wexton have raised significant funds this election cycle; campaign finance reports from the 2nd quarter 2018 show Comstock with more than $1.7M in the bank with $3.7M raised and Wexton with more than $765K in the bank with more than $1.9M raised. Both national parties have targeted this race as a “must win.”

The woman v. woman candidate matchup will be worth monitoring for at least two key reasons. First, it will be interesting to see how Comstock threads the needle between keeping Republican voters in her corner and attracting crossover votes as she downplays her shared party affiliation with President Trump. Comstock was able to do precisely this in the 2016 general election when she handily defeated another Democratic woman challenger, LuAnn Bennett. However, this year Comstock may have more difficulty putting daylight between herself and President as she votes in line with Trump’s position 97% of the time in the current Congress. Second, this matchup may test the salience of gun control as a general election issue for suburban voters. Comstock holds an “A” rating from the NRA (which has its headquarters in the neighboring VA-11th district), whereas Wexton is an endorsed Moms Demand Action “Gun Sense Candidate.”

Christine Jahnke
Iowa 1st congressional district – Abby Finkenauer vs. Rod Blum

In late July, the village of Madison Lake in southern Minnesota held its annual Paddlefish Days Grand Parade. Not much has changed about the parade, the paddlefish princess rode in a convertible, the Shriner’s drove tiny cars, and the local candidates who walked the route were all white men. The community has never elected a woman or a person of color to represent them in Congress. The first candidate I ever worked for tried to bring change, Mary Rieder a former college professor ran and lost twice in the late 1990s.

Today hope shines down the road a ways in an Iowa district that has also never sent a woman to Washington. The daughter of a pipefitter, Abby Finkenauer accomplished the unheard-of when she won a state legislative seat four years ago at the age of 25. Now big city papers report that Abby’s bid to win back the formerly blue 1st Congressional District that flipped red in 2016 is one to watch. If she defeats the Trump embraced incumbent the race will have national implications but there is a deeper story to be told.

Abby is white and lives in what some call flyover country. Yet she has much in common with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams. These candidates from different places, with different backgrounds, who’ve faced different challenges are driving change. Abby, Alexandria, and Stacy send a powerful signal that a woman vying for a position of leadership is to be expected not exceptional.

Next summer, families will line up their lawn chairs along parade routes in small towns everywhere. I’ll be looking for more women like Abby to march down Main Street.