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More Women Than Ever Are Running For Office. But Are They Winning Their Primaries?

You’ve probably already heard that more women are running for Congress in 2020 than in any other election cycle — and that’s saying a lot, given the record-breaking number of female candidates in the 2018 midterms. However, that cycle had an indisputable blue tinge, whereas this year, the share of female candidates who are Republican also shot up, thanks in part to a growing list of organizations committed to recruiting and supporting Republican women’s candidacies.

But an increase in the number of women running doesn’t mean much if they don’t make it to the general election. So now that 2020’s primary elections are almost all over, let’s assess how female candidates fared — and whether organizations that focus on electing more women have made a difference.

Like we did in 2018, FiveThirtyEight has been compiling a wealth of information, including gender, for every major-party candidate for Senate, House and governor this year. And based on data from primaries that were decided by Aug. 25, we found that more Republican women are getting nominated this year than in the last election cycle, while Democratic women are also improving on their impressive 2018 performance. As a result, the GOP won’t eclipse Democrats as the party of women anytime soon.

More women run, and win, in Democratic primaries

Share of all candidates who were women and share of candidates advancing to the general election who were women, in Senate, House and governor primaries

Party Candidates Primary Winners
Democrats 37% 47%
Republicans 20 22

As of Aug. 25, 2020.

Sources: Center for American Women and Politics, state election offices, Associated Press

Republican gains notwithstanding, more women have still run this year in Democratic primaries than in Republican ones. Thirty-seven percent (377 out of 1,015) of all candidates in the Democratic primaries we analyzed were women, compared with just 20 percent (237 out of 1,164) of candidates in Republican primaries.1 And among primary winners (or at least people who advanced to the general election2), the difference was even starker. Forty-seven percent (211 out of 445) of Democrats who advanced to the general election are women, versus just 22 percent (94 out of 426) of Republicans.

More women are running in open primaries

Share of all candidates who were women and share of candidates advancing to the general election who were women, in Senate, House and governor primaries with no incumbent running

Party Candidates Primary Winners
Democrats 40% 57%
Republicans 24 32

As of Aug. 25, 2020. In states where members of all parties compete in the same primary, the primary was considered open if any incumbent in the race belonged to a different party than the relevant candidate.

Sources: Center for American Women and Politics, state election offices, Associated Press

The main reason Democratic women were more likely to win the nomination is that they were incredibly successful in primaries without an incumbent.3 Women made up 40 percent (224 out of 565) of all the candidates who ran in Democratic primaries with no incumbent, but a whopping 57 percent (126 out of 221) of candidates who advanced to the general election in those races. Even in 2018, Democratic women were not winning primaries at that high a rate. They made up just 48 percent of the Democratic nominees in primaries that had been decided by Aug. 7, 2018 (when we conducted our analysis).

But although Republican women once again lag their Democratic counterparts here, they do have some reason for optimism. Women made up just 24 percent (200 out of 824) of all Republican candidates in these primaries, but 32 percent (77 out of 240) of their winners. It’s still a long way from parity, but it shows that when Republican women run in incumbent-less races, they have a good chance of getting the nomination.

GOP women are winning primaries in mostly blue seats

How Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the general election in the 77 races where a Republican woman won a primary for Senate, House or governor in which she was not the incumbent and did not face an incumbent

Rating Number of Races
Safe Republican 6
Competitive 22
Safe Democratic 49

As of Aug. 25, 2020.

Sources: Center for American Women and Politics, state election offices, Associated Press, Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Now for the bad news for the GOP: A lot of those 77 female nominees might not win their general elections. Only six of them won primaries in seats that election handicapper Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates as “Safe Republican.” By contrast, 49 Republican women are running in “Safe Democratic” seats, which means they will probably never set foot in the halls of Congress or their state capitol. So Republicans hoping to increase, say, the number of Republican women in the House of Representatives (there are currently only 13) may make only middling progress this year.

A healthy majority of the losing candidates in both parties were men, although the main reason for that is simply that more men were running than women, so male candidates had more chances to lose. But despite the smaller numbers of women on the ballot, there is one stat that undeniably shows they’re doing well, or at least keeping pace with men, in primaries on both sides: There have been 92 incumbent-less Democratic primaries pitting at least one woman against at least one man so far this year; women won 67 of them (73 percent). And there have been 108 such Republican primaries so far; men won 54, and women won 54.

Women are beating men in head-to-head races

Races won by gender, in primaries for Senate, House and governor where no incumbent was running and where at least one male and one female candidate were running

No. of Primaries won by …
Party Men Women Share won by women
Democrats 25 67 73%
Republicans 54 54 50

As of Aug. 25, 2020. In states where members of all parties compete in the same primary, the primary was considered incumbent-less if any incumbent in the race belonged to a different party than the relevant candidate. In two all-party races, two women advanced to the general election.

Sources: Center for American Women and Politics, state election offices, Associated Press

So on the whole, because more women are running, more women are winning. But reducing the gender gap in elected office-holders is more complicated than simply getting more women to run. This is why research shows that endorsements (and the financial backing that tends to come with them) can be crucial to addressing underrepresentation among women in political office.

That’s why groups like Emily’s List even exist. Emily’s List, named for the phrase “early money is like yeast” (because it makes the dough rise), was formed in 1985 to support pro-abortion-rights Democratic women in their campaigns for Congress, as the group’s founder, Ellen Malcolm, knew that if female candidates could raise money early in the race, they’d be seen as more viable. That bet has paid off. Emily’s List has grown to be a force within the Democratic Party, raising and spending tens of millions each election cycle.

After seeing the success of Emily’s List, some Republicans have worked over the past few cycles to try to replicate that type of influence in their own party. This sort of intervention is especially important for Republican women, who are often less prominent in political pipelines and more likely to encounter voters who are skeptical of female candidate’s partisan loyalties, as our colleague Perry Bacon Jr. has explained. Take the group that Rep. Elise Stefanik, a rising star in the GOP, launched in 2018, E-PAC. She formed that organization to explicitly support female candidates in their primaries. Inspired by the competitive primary she herself faced in 2014, Stefanik says goal is to make sure other qualified Republican women don’t get boxed out.

And the data suggests that the support of these organizations could be making a real difference. To determine this, while collecting data about major-party candidates in every Senate, House and governor primary, we tracked endorsements by three key women’s groups: Emily’s List for Democrats, and E-PAC and Winning for Women for Republicans. And it turns out that the win rate for women endorsed by these groups is higher than it is for women overall.

Women with endorsements almost always won

How female candidates endorsed by three women’s groups fared in primaries for Senate, House and governor where no incumbent was running

Affiliation No. Endorsed No. Who Won win Percentage
Winning for Women Republican 15 13 87%
E-PAC Republican 21 18 86
Emily’s List Democratic 31 26 84

As of Aug. 25, 2020. Some women were endorsed by both E-PAC and Winning for Women. In states where members of all parties compete in the same primary, the primary was considered incumbent-less if any incumbent in the race belonged to a different party than the relevant candidate.

Sources: Winning for women, Emily’s list, E-PAC, associated press, Center for American Women and Politics

Once again looking only at incumbent-less primaries, 18 of the 21 women endorsed by E-PAC (86 percent) and 13 of the 15 women endorsed by Winning for Women (87 percent) won their primaries. These win rates are much higher than the win rate of Republican women in incumbent-less primaries overall, which stands at 39 percent. This suggests either that an endorsement from these groups (and the financial backing that came with it) helped those women win, or that these groups are shrewdly endorsing the GOP’s strongest female candidates. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both — the encouragement of groups like E-PAC and Winning for Women could be drawing more formidable women into the race.

And on the Democratic side, Emily’s List endorsed 31 candidates in incumbent-less primaries, 26 of whom won. That’s an 84 percent win rate,4 much higher than Democratic women’s 56 percent win rate overall, but similar to the rates for E-PAC and Winning for Women. That said, Emily’s List also flexed its muscle in a way E-PAC and Winning for Women did not: It endorsed two women who were challenging incumbents — Marie Newman in Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District and Jessica Cisneros in Texas’s 28th Congressional District. (Newman’s and Cisernos’s opponents both opposed abortion, which helps explain why Emily’s List got involved.) What’s more, Newman actually won, and the nearly $1 million Emily’s List spent on the race was probably a big part of that.

E-PAC and Winning for Women are both new on the scene, so it makes sense that they may not be quite as bold as Emily’s List, which has become a major player in Democratic politics. By contrast, establishment Republicans viewed E-PAC skeptically, and GOP women’s groups face obstacles that Democratic groups do not: Unlike Democrats, the Republican Party and its voters tend to recoil from explicit appeals to gender diversity, which can make it difficult for female candidates to campaign on the unique perspective or qualifications they’d bring to the table. But the data suggests that groups like E-PAC and Winning for Women are off to a promising start in their attempt to bring gender diversity to the GOP. Their next big test becomes how many of these women will win in November.

Footnotes

  1. The rest were men, with one exception: Bre Kidman, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Maine who is nonbinary. They lost.

  2. In California and Washington primaries, the top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to November.

  3. Or, in states where candidates of all parties run against each other in the same primary, where the incumbent was a member of the other party.

  4. In keeping with our finding that Democratic women are meeting with even more success than they did in 2018, this is an improvement from Emily’s List’s 72 percent win rate in our 2018 analysis.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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