U.S. Midterms: Historic Wins for Women and Minority Candidates

Democracy at Work

Youngest female ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), meets with Delaware Senate seat candidate and activist, Kerri Evelyn Harris in September 2018. (photo: Kerri Evelyn Harris)

U.S. mid-term Election Day 2018 saw record voter turn-outs, with gains and losses in both parties. People all across the nation came together to hold watch-parties and wait for the votes to be counted in their states. Some people waited all night. Some, are still waiting.

This historic U.S. election saw other records, too: The number of candidates who, if elected, would help the governing body of the U.S. government become a little more representative of the vastly diverse 325.7 million people who call the U.S. their home.

Some candidates ran against deeply entrenched incumbents, some ran unopposed; there were tough races against people with more campaign experience, and an arduous, grueling campaign process that is certainly not for the faint of heart. In spite of the crushing work schedules, the strain on their families, the constant travel and fundraising, candidates across the country persevered and, in a trimumph of democracy in action, were elected in record numbers.

This isn’t the first time. Certainly not the last.

Echos of 1992’s “Year of the Woman”

On an election day much like yesterday’s, way back in 1992, American voters elected more women to Congress than in any previous decade. Political forecasters in the U.S. had been predicting ‘a rise of the woman candidate’ since the late 1970’s and it had almost happened in 1984.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen as the Democratic nominee for Vice President and became the first woman to appear on a major party ticket. Other women running for office that year included Jan Meyers of Kansas, who became the first Republican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Kansas that year. She credited Ferraro in part for raising the profile of women in politics and helping to force the Republican party to take the concerns of women voters more seriously.

One critical mistake in 1984; pollsters predicting women might vote as a bloc on hot-button issues like reproductive rights and support Ferraro in the polls. However, though there were gains for women that year, including Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.)., this did not happen and the incumbent Ronald Reagan defeated Mondale/Ferraro in a landslide.

Why 1992?

Much like 2018, 1992’s surge in female candidates had a number of driving forces. Many of these still echo in yesterday’s historic elections, and indeed in the election years since:

  • Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a liberal-leaning JFK Democrat nominated by Johnson, retired and George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to take his seat. Thomas, a conservative, came under Democrat fire for his anti-abortion stance and his confirmation hearing became a televised event when he was accused of sexual harassment by former aide, Anita Hill. Millions of women voters, and potential candidates, were undoubtably moved by the image of Hill facing an unsympathetic, and all-male, judiciary committee.
  • There were a record number of women on the ticket in 1992
  • There were a large number of retiring Members in 1992
  • 1992 also marked the start of over 20-years of political achievements by minority women: 47 out of 58 who have served in Congress were elected from 1992–2016
  • Gains in 1984 gave 1992 a bigger pool of female political candidates with experience in office
  • Economic downturns and scandals contributed to a general anti-incumbent sentiment. ‘Outsider’ candidates gained an edge, and women, long the political outsiders and anathema to the ‘good old boys’ club, capitalized.
  • Abortion rights were felt to be in jeopardy, with a pro-life President in the White House and the Supreme Court considering a ruling that might have reversed Roe V. Wade

2018 Mid-term Elections

Following 1984, 1992 and steady gains ever since, 2018 swept more than 100 women into seats in the House and Senate. Diversity also won some pretty incredible victories this election, as well, with many firsts taking their long-appointed seats at last. These newly elected public servants will be exciting to watch in the coming year as they take office and begin the difficult work of representing their districts and constituents. Here are a few to watch:

  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan-D) and Rep. Iilan Omar (Minnesota-D) will be the first female Muslim members of Congress. Rep. Omar will also be the first member of Congress to wear a hijab, or head scarf, and the first Somali-American elected to Congress.
  • Rep. Sharice Davids (Kansas-D) and Rep. Deb Haaland (New Mexico-D) will be the first female Native American women in Congress. Rep. Sharice Davids also becomes Kansas’s first openly gay member of Congress.
  • With his election as Governor of Colorado, Jared Polis (D.) becomes the first openly gay man to serve as Governor of a U.S. State.
  • 28-year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-D) will become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, unseating former title holder, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican elected at 30 in 2014.
  • Rep. Jahana Hayes will be Connecticut’s first African-American woman elected to Congress.
  • Rep. Ayanna Pressley will become Massachusett’s first African-American woman elected to Congress.
  • Rep. Cindy Axne and Rep. Abby Finkenauer will together become Iowa’s first women elected to the House of Representatives. Finkenauer is only 29-years old and only just missed being the youngest female ever elected to congress.
  • Iowa also elected it’s first female Governor: Kim Reynolds, a Republican and former lientenant governor of Iowa 2011–2017.
  • South Dakota gets it’s first female Governor: Republican and four-term U.S. congresswoman, Kristi Noem.
  • Tennessee elects it’s first female Senator: Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, an eight-term congresswoman serving Tennessee.

A more diverse and accurate representation of citizens of the U.S. in their governing bodies may only be the beginning. Other critical steps were taken in the direction of expanding voter rights.

Expansion of Voting Rights: 2018 Mid-term Election

There were quite a few notable victories for voting rights on election Tuesday 2018 as well. These initiatives passed very easily, signaling robust bi-partisan support for expanding voting rights:

  • Florida passed Amendment 4 which aims to restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million ex-felons. This amendment was supported by a large array of ideologically and politically diverse organizations including the Christian Coalition and Freedom Partners, which is backed by the Koch brothers.
  • Michigan voters elected to modernize their election systems with Election Day registration, automatic registration, better absentee ballots and strait ticket voting.
  • Nevada will also adopt automatic registration measures
  • Maryland will adopt Election Day registration

With clear support for expanding voting rights extending accross all political parties and ideologies, and the sound defeat of Kansas Governor contender Kris Kobach, who has made something of a carreer out of the statistically rare cases of voter fraud, voters have sent a clear message about any attempts to restrict the right to vote.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)