Record number of women appear headed to Congress

Democrat Jennifer Wexton (center) unseated Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.

A record number of women appeared headed to Congress after Tuesday’s election. Overwhelmingly, they are Democrats critical of the direction President Trump is taking the country.

“There will be a historic number of women walking into Congress in January,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, an influential Democratic-leaning group that supports women in politics. “The only question now is whether it will be a good night or a great night for women.”

Women have never held more than 20 percent, or 107, of the 535 seats in Congress, the current number.

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That percentage is lower than in many other countries, from Mexico to Britain, and is seen as a reason the United States has never elected a female president.

But late Tuesday night as results were still coming in, that record was on pace to be broken. Women ran for office in unprecedented numbers, mostly as Democrats and many as first-time candidates.

Women made inroads in gubernatorial races, too, which are particularly important because of the upcoming redistricting battles.

In both Kansas and Michigan, women flipped states that had been under Republican control.

Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly defeated Republican Kris Kobach, whom Trump had campaigned with in Kansas last month.

Gretchen Whitmer, a former state senator in Michigan, won her race after campaigning on a promise to fix the state’s roads and aging drinking water infrastructure, and to expand Medicaid to lower-income adults.

Notably, Michigan Democrats selected a woman for every statewide office on Tuesday’s ballot: governor, U.S. senator, attorney general and secretary of state.

Georgia had the most high-profile governor’s race. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who won the backing of former president Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, was aiming to be the first black female governor in the nation.

But she was trailing late Tuesday night behind Trump-backed candidate Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who cast himself as a “politically incorrect” hard-line immigration candidate like the president.

The women who ran this year were remarkably diverse — black, Latina, Native American. But noticeably absent on ballots were more Republican women.

“We need to go out and get our women engaged,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership. “We are being dwarfed by the Democrats. This is something we are going to focus on.”

Chamberlain said she hears voters in key districts talking mostly about an affordable health-care system that serves everyone, even those with preexisting medical conditions. That has been the loud and clear message of many Democratic candidates.

The new faces coming to Congress include:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, 29, a Latina who defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley in a decisive primary, is set to become the youngest woman elected to Congress.

In Virginia, Democrat Jennifer Wexton unseated Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.

Deb Haaland, a Democrat in New Mexico, became the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

In Florida, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, an immigrant from Ecuador and educator, focused her campaign largely on health care and toppled Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Republican incumbent. Curbelo had voted to repeal Obamacare in a district that contains thousands of people who benefited from it.

Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, born in Detroit to Palestinian parents, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who arrived in the United States from Somalia at age 14, won their House races, becoming the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

At a rally in Minneapolis on Monday night, Omar was cheered wildly, and danced as she was introduced.

“The opportunity to be here, to participate in this democracy, has made me want to dance, and door-knock and talk to people and invite people to the joy of what it means to participate in a democracy,” she told a crowd of volunteers.

“What I want to do for you is have my energy be contagious,” she said.

Some GOP women won key races.

Marsha Blackburn, who called herself a “hardcore, card-carrying conservative,” became the first female senator ever elected from Tennessee. Backed by Trump in the Republican state, she defeated Phil Bredesen, a centrist Democrat and former governor.

While men with military backgrounds have long been recruited to run for office, this year’s candidates include several female veterans.

One of the most well known, Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, became a national sensation when her online video ads went viral. But she lost a close race to Republican incumbent Garland “Andy” Barr. Trump had won that district handily.

Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran and first-time Democratic candidate, was projected to win Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District race. She would replace retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican.

Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and Democrat, was on track to win New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. She said she was motivated to run for office by what she calls a “lack of respect” for women by the Trump administration and was astounded to see an all-male Senate panel debating whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year.

In Arizona, a close race between Republican Martha McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot, and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who is openly bisexual, means that Arizona will have its first female senator no matter who wins.

They are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

A record 33 of the Tuesday’s matchups for Congress were women vs. women. In Florida, Democrat Donna Shalala, the former president of the University of Miami and Cabinet member during the Clinton administration, defeated Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a broadcast journalist of Cuban heritage, according to early results.

“Are women fired up? That is putting it mildly,” said Jen Cox, a founder of PaveItBlue. Her group, one of many formed since Trump’s election and after the Women’s March, connected thousands of women in the Atlanta area interested in becoming more politically active.

“It’s historic. It’s our turn in having a say in changing the face of politics,” Cox said.

Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the female candidates in 2018 did not fit any particular mold.

“They have disrupted public expectations of how they behave, and what credentials and attributes they bring to politics,” Dittmar said. “And that could have long-term effects.”

Along with better health care, other key issues that helped propel women were their pledges to better protect the environment and to help stop the rising incivility and divisions among Americans.

“This is only just the beginning,” said Schriock, president of Emily’s List. “I think we are going to see a historical turnout of women in 2020 — this is not dying down.”

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