Inside a classroom at a community college in downtown Dallas, a group of two dozen women took turns sharing their names, hometowns and what they hoped would be their future titles: Congresswoman. Dallas County judge. State representative.
It was part of a training held by EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing women at all levels of government who support abortion rights. During the presentation, one of the PowerPoint slides flashed a mock advertisement on the projector screen: “Help Wanted: Progressive Women Candidates.”
A record number of women appear to be answering that call, fueled largely by frustration on the Democratic side over the election of President Donald Trump and energized by Democratic women winning races in Virginia in November. Experts say 2018 is on track to be a historic year, with more women saying they are running at this point than ever before.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. “Every day, dozens more women come to our website, come to our Facebook page and say, ‘I am mad as hell. I want to do something about it. What should I do now?’”
In the four weeks after the 2016 election, 1,000 women came to the group’s website to learn about running for office. That number has now surpassed 26,000. By comparison, the group was in contact with 960 women for the previous election cycle.
Whether all that enthusiasm will result in full-fledged campaigns and translate to gains in the number of women elected to office remains to be seen.
Although women are more than half the American population, they account for just a fifth of all U.S. representatives and senators, and 1 in 4 state lawmakers. They serve as governors of only six states and mayors in roughly 20 percent of the nation’s most populous cities.
For Sarah Riggs Amico, the executive chairwoman of a major auto hauling company, last year’s Women’s March in Atlanta ignited her interest in running for office.
“It was something that really lifted me up and made me want to demand better from my government,” said Amico, who recently announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia.
Sol Flores has been walking in marches with her mother in Chicago since she was a little girl, but never thought she would run for office. Now 44, Flores said she was enraged by Trump administration policies and decided to jump into a crowded Democratic primary for Illinois’ 4th Congressional District.
Flores said her network of friends has been crucial to helping her navigate the realities of being a first-time candidate and the challenges of fundraising and gathering signatures for qualifying.
“Women are really good at this, saying, ‘Let’s sit down and figure this out. You raised your hand, and let’s win. Let’s go to Washington, D.C.,’” said Flores, the executive director of a nonprofit helping homeless families and at-risk youth.
Texas female candidates
One hundred women, Democrats and Republicans, have filed to run for Texas legislative seats this year, compared with 76 women in 2016, according to Patsy Woods Martin, executive director of Annie’s List, whose mission is to recruit, train, support and elect progressive, pro-choice female candidates in Texas.
Woods Martin said that in 2017, 800 women participated in the organization’s candidate training programs, up from 550 in 2013.
As of now, Annie’s List has endorsed two candidates — Beverly Powell and Julie Johnson. Powell is seeking to beat state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, in Senate District 10, for the North Texas seat formerly held by Wendy Davis, who surrendered it in 2014 to run for governor. Johnson is looking to oust state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, one of the most conservative members of the House, in House District 115.
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While the statewide slates of both parties will be dominated by men, Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, with a ranch in Mineral Wells, is the lone Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, and Republican Christi Craddick is seeking to keep her spot on the Railroad Commission.
There are also quite a few Texas women running for seats in Congress, including Mary Jennings Hegar and Christine Eady Mann, two of the four candidates seeking to win the Democratic nomination to take on Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in U.S. House District 31.
Hegar of Round Rock is a former Air Force helicopter pilot who won a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and a Purple Heart for her bravery in Afghanistan, and led a successful suit against the Pentagon over excluding women from combat.
Mann is a family practice physician in Cedar Park and co-captain of Wilco Indivisible, part of a national network of activist groups formed in reaction to Trump’s election as president.
The last time the U.S. saw a surge in women running for office was 1992, in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony before an all-male U.S. Senate committee weighing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was called the “Year of the Woman” because women were elected to the U.S. House and Senate in record numbers.
The number of women in office has held steady in recent years, but experts say conditions are ripe for an increase in 2018 — especially if more politicians are forced to step down or retire amid the growing #MeToo movement that began with accusations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein.
One U.S. senator and four congressmen have so far announced plans to retire or not seek re-election after allegations against them, presenting a prime opportunity for women to compete for their open seats. For example, seven women have expressed interest in an April special election for an Arizona congressional seat. In Texas’ Congressional District 27, transgender activist Vanessa Foster is one of four Democrats running to replace Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, who announced last month he wouldn’t seek re-election amid sexual harassment claims.
The increase in female candidates is largely being seen in U.S. House and governor’s races next year and driven primarily by Democrats, said Debbie Walsh, who leads the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In addition to the 50 Democratic and 10 Republican congresswomen expected to run for re-election, there are 183 Democratic women and 14 Republican women running in primaries to challenge their current U.S. representative.
These can be uphill races, but many of the women running say they were encouraged by what happened in Virginia in November, when 30 percent of the women who challenged their state representative won.
Katie Hill is among those seeking to oust her local congressman, Republican Rep. Steve Knight in California’s 25th Congressional District, a key Democratic target this year.
As an advocate for homeless people, Hill recalled the joy she felt on the night of the 2016 election when voters in Los Angeles passed a $1.2 billion bond measure for housing and services for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless. But that was quickly tempered by the outcome of the presidential election.
“November made us all realize that our country is not where we need to be,” Hill said. “And that’s the point when people start to stand up and say, ‘If no one else is going to fix it, I’m going to.’”
It’s not just Democrats. First-time Republican and Libertarian female candidates are also jumping into the mix.
Republicans launched an effort in 2012 that is focused on electing women. Under the “Right Women, Right Now” program, 390 new GOP women have been elected since then.
“Twenty-five percent of state legislators are women, and that’s clearly insufficient,” said Matt Walter, head of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “That’s a Democratic and Republican number, and something we really felt strongly was something we needed to change.”
On the state level, 36 governor’s races will be contested in 2018. The Center for American Women and Politics says 49 Democratic women, including former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in Texas, and 28 Republican women have indicated they will run for those gubernatorial seats. There has never been more than nine women serving as governor at the same time.
Even if all the women who have reached out to groups such as EMILY’s List do not end up running, they are expected to play key roles in supporting those who do.
“This is the next decade of candidates,” Schriock said.
Includes material from The Associated Press and American-Statesman staff writer Jonathan Tilove.