Voters in 36 states will beto elect their governors, and in a year where state leaders have been in the spotlight as they address some of the most pressing issues — COVID-19 and abortion, for instance — a record number of women are running for the job. Now, as the primary season draws to a close in the next few weeks, a record number of women are winning their party's nomination.
Sixty-nine women filed to run for governor in 2022, surpassing the previous record of 61, set in 2018. So far, 23 have won their primaries, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, which tracks women candidates. The previous record was also set in 2018 when 16 women won their primaries.
Currently, nine women serve as governors across the country, matching a record first set in 2004, and this year could break that record.
"What you're looking at is the potential for 11 or 12, maybe even 13 women serving as governor at any one time," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "You've got the potential for breaking through that magical nine number that we've been stuck at for so long."
The jump in the number of women winning primaries for governor is taking place in both major parties. For Democrats, at least 15 women have been nominated for governor, surpassing the previous record of 12 set in 2018. Republican voters have so far this year made eight women nominees for governor, surpassing the previous record of five set in 1986, 2006 and 2010.
"It's important to focus now even more on the states because what we're seeing is a real shift of power back to the states again," said Walsh, pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions including the overturning of the landmark abortion law Roe v. Wade.
A heightened awareness and focus on state leadership is something Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says she is absolutely seeing on the campaign trail. Healey is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor in a state that is ranked solidly for Democrats by Cook Political Report. The primary is in September. Massachusetts has never elected a woman as governor, and GOP Gov. Charlie Baker is not seeking reelection.
"I believe that representation matters," said Healey, who would not only be the first woman elected governor of the state but also the first lesbian governor in the nation. "We will have more effective laws and policies and government when we have those in government elected to serve better reflect the diversity of our population."
She noted that women are the ones making a lot of economic decisions for their households. With that in mind, she's running on a platform focused on affordability issues including housing, transportation and childcare. As state attorney general, Healey was the first in that Massachusetts office to adopt paid parental leave.
"I bring a particular lens to this as a woman to be able to help form policies that support families," said Healey. "I also bring a lens of understanding to what it's like to be excluded."
At the same time, Republican women are also working to make gains with representation in state leadership.
"All my experience led to this point where I had a decision to make about how far I was going to go to save what I believe is a country in trouble right now, and our kids futures in trouble, so I didn't want to wake up in five or 10 years and think I could have done something and didn't," said Heidi Ganahl, Republican nominee for governor in Colorado. "I thought, you know, I'm going to run, and if people think I'm a good option, they'll elect me."
Ganahl said she's running first as a mom worried about her kids. While she's up against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in a race that Cook Political Report rates "solid D," if elected, she would be the first woman to serve as governor of Colorado.
This year has not just seen a record number of women gubernatorial nominees to date, there is also a record number of women running against other women at the top of the ticket. In four instances ever, both major party nominees have been women. This year, there are five governor's races in which both of the major-party nominees are women.
It means that no matter who wins the race in November in Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan and Oregon, the governor will be a woman. In four of those races, there is an incumbent governor who is a woman. In Arizona, two women have been nominated in the race to fill the open seat.
While women are making gains in representation in statewide office, there is still a long way to go. Even if a record 13 women are elected in November as governor, it is far from parity.
Throughout history only 45 women have served as governor. Nineteen states have not yet had a woman serve as governor. In Arkansas, where Cook Political Report rates the race as solid Republican, GOP nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders is poised to change that.
Meanwhile, in Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams is running against Republican Governor Brian Kemp for a second time after losing in 2018. Should she win the race — in a state where Democrats had two narrow Senate victories in 2021 — she would not only be the first woman elected governor in Georgia, she would also be the first Black woman ever elected governor in the United States, a fact Abrams noted just last week.
"I'm running to make history and serve as the first Black woman governor our country has ever seen," she tweeted. Deidre DeJear also won the Democratic governor's primary in Iowa.
"When you have one who goes out and says this is what I want to do, there's a domino effect," said Stefanie Brown James, founder of Collective PAC, which is focused on increasing Black representation across government. "Sometimes you have to see it to believe it and then believe that you can do that."
While Black women face multiple barriers running for office – racism, sexism, a greater lack of resources such as funding – Brown James believes visibility has helped in recent years. More Black women than ever before filed to run for governor this year, as well as for Congress.
Abrams' experience in government started in the Georgia House of Representatives. Women make up roughly 30% of state legislatures though they comprise more than half the population. But for a number of Democratic and Republican women governors, it's where they began their political careers, including several incumbents currently up for re-election, like Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Kim Reynolds of Iowa.
Now, even more women are positioned to run for higher office after a major increase in the number of women serving in state legislatures in 2018.
"I think that has contributed to the growth and the positioning of women in state legislatures and in other statewide elected offices that then position them to make these runs and I think that's important," Walsh said.
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