Thinking beyond ‘the first’ distinction for women of color candidates

April 12, 2018

Many women candidates running in the midterm elections have the potential to be the ‘first’ woman elected to their particular office. While all but one of the states have sent a woman to Congress, 22 states have yet to elect a woman governor and there remain more statewide executive and district-specific blank spots in women’s representation nationwide.

But the potential for “firsts” is particularly great for women of color candidates this year. Thirty states have never sent a woman of color to Congress, just two states have elected women of color governors, and the representation of women of color in other statewide elected executive posts is especially low; looking more specifically within racial and ethnic groups reveals even greater potential for breaking new ground in 2018.

Being the “first” can bring particular advantages or disadvantages to women candidates when it comes to voter and media bias. For women of color candidates, the novelty of their intersecting identities within a political environment that remains dominated by white men will add a distinct dynamic to their campaigns. Previous research has found that non-traditional political candidates can attract more media and voter attention to their particular group membership, and that attention can have both positive and negative tones and effects. More specifically, minority women candidates are likely to attract more media attention, especially when they have the potential to make history in the election. Among voters, they may, as non-traditional candidates, encounter negative or positive stereotypes based on their group membership. Importantly, though, research indicates that the advantages to women candidates who stand at multiple intersections of race and gender are too often ignored, and the importance of their representation on the campaign trail and in office less often explored.

In my own research, I argue these minority women candidates have multiple and intersecting identities which can bring additional opportunities for more available voting coalitions.  In addition, the minority women candidates are also likely to have extensive candidate qualifications, including a wealth of political and community experiences, which can serve to bolster their political campaigns.

Here I highlight some of the women of color candidates in 2018 who are working to become “the first” to represent their communities in Congress or as a governor.

Congressional ‘Firsts’

In early March, two women won Texas primary contests to likely become the first Latinas to be elected to Congress from Texas.  While Texas first elected a Latino male to Congress in the 1960s, it has yet to send a Latina to Congress.  Veronica Escobar won the Democratic nomination for the 16th congressional district in El Paso, Texas.  Escobar has experience working in her community for a local non-profit organization, as communications director for a former mayor of El Paso, a faculty member at a University and community college, as well as public servant serving as a county commissioner and county judge.  State Senator Sylvia Garcia is the Democratic nominee in the 29th congressional district in Houston, Texas.  She also has extensive previous community experience working as a social worker and legal aid lawyer.  As well as extensive public service experience ranging from three terms in the Texas Senate, city comptroller, and county commissioner.  Both Latinas are running in open Democratic seats that are being vacated by an outgoing male representative due to retirement or candidacy for a Senate seat.

An additional congressional hopeful in Texas is Gina Ortiz Jones, who will compete in a May runoff for the 23rd congressional district in west Texas.  She could make history as the first lesbian, first Iraq War veteran, and first Filipina-American to hold a U.S. House seat in Texas. She has previous experience in the Air Force and as an intelligence officer.

At least four Native American women are also running for Congress, where no Native American women have ever served. Debra Haaland, a member of the San Felipe Pueblo, is running as a Democrat in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district. She is an attorney with previous experience in key leadership roles for the Democratic Party and San Felipe Pueblo’s tribal office.  Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, is a Democrat running with six other candidates to secure the nomination to represent Kansas’ 3rd congressional district. Davids is an attorney, previously served as a White House Fellow, and has extensive experience working on Native American reservations to create economic development opportunities.  Amanda Douglas, a member of the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma, is running as a Democrat in Oklahoma’s 1st congressional district.  Douglas is a business analyst/consultant, who considers her non-traditional candidacy an advantage for her campaign.  Eve Reyes-Aguirre, an Izkaloteka Mexican Native from Phoenix, is running as a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona.  She is trying to become the first woman and first indigenous woman senator in Arizona.  Reyes-Aguirre has previous experience representing the women of her community in international leadership posts.

Rashida Tlaib is a Democrat running for Congress in Michigan’s 13th district and could become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. She is not alone; other women like Fayrouz Saad (running in Michigan’s 11th district), Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (running in Massachusetts’  1st district), and Deedra Abboud (running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona) are also running to be among the first Muslim women in Congress.

Tlaib was raised in Detroit, has Palestinian immigrant parents, and served as a public interest lawyer at the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.  Tlaib was the first Muslim women elected to the Michigan state legislature.  She has reported encountering some heightened scrutiny due to both her gender and ethnicity, including commentary on her appearance, criticism over taking on this campaign while raising young kids, and questions about whether or not she is U.S.-born.

Other notable women of color running for Congress include Lauren Underwood, who won the Democratic nomination in Illinois’ 14th congressional district in March. She defeated a field of all white men and would become the first Black woman to represent her district in Congress. Mai Khanh Tran, a doctor originally from Vietnam, is running as a Democrat for the 39th congressional district in California; she is just one among multiple Asian American women seeking to increase the representation of women of color in Congress this year.

Gubernatorial ‘Firsts’

There are at least three Latinas running for governor in the 2018 election.  Lupe Valdez is running in Texas’ Democratic primary runoff in May.  Valdez would be the first Latina lesbian to be elected governor.  She was previously elected to four terms as Sheriff of Dallas County and was the only Latina sheriff in the U.S. Amanda Renteria is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of California in June. She had a delayed start to the campaign and only announced her candidacy in February.  She has extensive political experience working on campaigns, including as Hillary Clinton’s former national political director, as well as key leadership posts for elected officials.  Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham is a Democrat running for governor of New Mexico.  She is currently serving her third term in Congress and is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

State Representative Stacey Abrams is Black woman running for governor of Georgia. She will compete for the Democratic nomination in May. Abrams is an attorney who has experience working in business and has held previous elective office. Abrams gained increased recognition in 2010, when she became the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first Black person to be party leader in Georgia’s House of Representatives.

State Representative Paulette Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, is running for governor of Idaho.  Jordan will compete for the Democratic nomination in May.  She has the possibility to become the state’s first female governor and the country’s first Native American governor.  Jordan has previous political experience on her tribal council and comes from a long line of tribal chiefs in her family.

Krishanti Vignarajah is running for governor of Maryland. She is the only woman candidate in June’s Democratic primary. Vignarajah an immigrant originally from Sri Lanka, is an attorney and was the policy director for former first lady Michelle Obama. In her first online campaign advertisement, she highlights the benefits of having more women in government and responded to those who have said “no man can beat Governor Hogan,”  “Well, I’m no man. I’m a mom, I’m a woman, and I want to be your next governor.”  An additional note about this campaign ad is that Vignarajah is shown breastfeeding her child in several shots, which is a recent trend this election season.

Several of these women have reported they did not know they were considered “the first” to run for their particular office.  Often it is political organizations and media who highlight their novelty status in the election.  Meanwhile, some of the women of color have already begun to highlight the distinctiveness of their candidacies.  For example, recent campaign advertisements for gubernatorial candidates in California (Renteria), Georgia (Abrams), and Maryland (Vignarajah) point to their different perspectives and lived experiences they can bring to public service and the gubernatorial political office.

As we monitor this year’s campaigns, the experts at Gender Watch 2018 will be assessing the level of media and voter attention that minority women candidates attract and whether the likely heightened attention brings advantages or disadvantages to their campaigns.  In addition, we will watch for the influence of more diverse voters across the country, which can be key sources of support for these women of color candidates. In all of our analyses, we will move beyond the focus on “firsts” to examine what these women’s candidacies – and potential success – will mean for challenging voter expectations, disrupting assumptions of minority women’s “double disadvantage,” and changing the rules of the game in campaigns to accommodate new and more diverse players.

Christina Bejarano is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. She is the author of The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success and The Latino Gender Gap in U.S. Politics