Gov. Jane Swift

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The number of women running for gubernatorial posts is approaching an all-time high, propelled by a combination of timing and experience gained in other statewide offices that has led to greater acceptance of women in positions of leadership.

At least 30 women in 20 states have filed statements of candidacy or have said they are considering gubernatorial bids for this year’s 36 governor’s races, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. The ever-expanding list is nearing records set in 1994, when 34 women filed for gubernatorial races and a 10 won their primaries.

“This has to be the best year ever,” said Dan Pfeiffer, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “I can’t imagine there has ever been a more impressive list of women gubernatorial candidates than there are in 2002.”

In the past, Republican women have fared better in gubernatorial elections than have Democrats because they are perceived as more fiscally responsible. This year, however, Democratic women appear to have a better shot at winning their states’ top executive offices simply because there are more Democratic women who have filed for governor and are considered qualified candidates.

At least one candidate, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, is considered a slam-dunk in the November elections. But there are several other top-flight candidates who are likely to win their states’ primary races and run competitive campaigns for the general election.

A Crowded Playing Field in Democratic Races Too

On the Democratic side are Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano; former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno of Florida; Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer of Alaska; Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius of Kentucky; and state Sen. Bev Hollingworth of New Hampshire. A handful of strong women candidates in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Wisconsin and Rhode Island are also mounting bids in crowded primary fields.

Among Republicans, Massachusetts Acting Gov. Jane Swift and Hawaii Republican Party Chair Linda Lingle are poised to win their party’s nominations, and Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood is running a strong campaign for her state’s March 19 primary. About 10 additional Republican women have filed or are considering running for governor in states including Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming.

The candidates themselves deny that discrimination is a fact that must be overcome. Rather, they contend that the public is more concerned about a candidate’s platform than her gender.

Lingle said she had never gotten the feeling that her gender is a big issue for people. “People are much more interested in my positions and my record.”

Arizona’s Napolitano, a candidate to be her state’s first Democratic woman governor elected to office and is considered one of the Democrats’ best hopes, agreed.

“I’m not running as a woman candidate. I’m running for governor, and I happen to be a woman,” she said. The public is going to transition out of the fascination with the ‘women candidates,’ she said, and will start treating us as candidates who happen to be women. “I’m not a newcomer to politics,” Napolitano added. “I’m not a newcomer to public life. I have name recognition and I’m used to dealing with ebb and flow. That process has positioned me in a way to be a legitimate contender for the governor’s office.”

Women Benefit From Perception of Strength on Domestic Issues

This 2002 governors’ elections bode well for women in part because there are 18 open-seat races, a larger number than in the 1998 and 2000 elections. Open-seat races represent the most promising opportunities for women in part because they attract more women candidates than do campaigns against incumbents. Mostly male and notoriously difficult to unseat, incumbents tend to scare off gubernatorial hopefuls of either gender.

Even so, many of the 20 incumbents seeking re-election are considered politically vulnerable for a variety of reasons, most notably because many governors are facing unexpected budget shortfalls for the first time in their careers, according to political analyst Charlie Cook. In addition, Democrats contend that Republicans, who are defending 23 seats overall and 11 of the open seats, are over-represented.

This year also features a large number of women candidates who already hold statewide offices–historically women’s best stepping stones to the governors’ mansions. Many of this year’s candidates won statewide offices in 1994–a record year for women in the lieutenant governors’ races–and were re-elected in 1998. Their terms will expire this year, leaving them in a position to climb to the next rung of the political ladder.

The sheer number of qualified candidates suggests that women are likely to add to the five gubernatorial seats they currently hold, said Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. Of the five incumbents, Massachusetts’s Swift will try to win the post she took over when President Bush made then-Gov. Paul Celluci ambassador to Canada, and Republican Jane Dee Hull of Arizona and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are leaving office. Shaheen is running for the Senate.

In addition to Kennedy Townsend, about eight other candidates are favored to win their parties’ primaries. A host of strong women candidates across the country are vying for front-runner status in crowded primary fields and may add to the ranks of women gubernatorial nominees this year.

Kirsten Fedewa, spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association, said that women candidates are in a strong position to make gains in the governors’ offices this year.

“The Republican women that we have seen run for governor have been very strong individuals and excellent leaders,” she said. “A lot of issues that have come to the forefront, issues like education, the economy, or even homeland defense, are issues that Republican women have run very strongly on. They have a directness and a strength that is really appealing to the electorate.”

Historical Barriers Remain for Prospective Women Leaders

But despite the preponderance of qualified candidates, O’Connor cautioned against irrational exuberance. Women, she said, more often have been kept from their states’ top executive offices than congressional offices because the public has been reluctant to accept women as their leaders.

“Historically, women have had very difficult time being viewed as chief executive of anything,” O’Connor said. “Certain segments of the populace are more willing to see women in the House of Representatives than in executive-level positions.”

Indeed, women control 14 percent of the House and 13 percent of the Senate, but occupy only 10 percent of the governors’ offices.

But that appears to be changing, O’Connor said. Throughout the ’90s, women made significant inroads in mayoral and county executive races as well as in major statewide offices such as lieutenant governor, state auditor and attorney general. Women are ready to be promoted and their constituents are becoming more accustomed to seeing them in leadership roles, she said.

Barbara Lee, president of a foundation to advance women’s political leadership and author of a book on women gubernatorial candidates, explained that because women are viewed as nontraditional candidates, they must have traditional executive leadership experience.

“In other words,” Lee said, “women have to work their way up the ranks . . . They need to be able to prove that they can raise money and be able to show voters that they can build consensus but that they can also make the tough decisions as a solo player.” (Lee’s foundation is a supporter of Women’s Enews.)

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may also work in favor of women gubernatorial candidates, O’Connor added, because Congress is focusing almost exclusively on foreign policy–a policy arena that voters tend to associate with men. Governors, meanwhile, are now taking charge of the country’s domestic agenda–an area voters view as more suited to women.

“In the post 9-11 atmosphere, women have better shots running as governor than for senator,” O’Connor said. “Women are viewed as more capable and trained to deal with domestic issues. People might feel that the rough-and-tumble world of foreign policy would be better suited to senators on the Foreign Relations Committee.”

A remaining hurdle for women candidates is the lack of younger women in political office, said Swift, the youngest governor in the country and the first to give birth in office. (She delivered twins shortly after becoming governor last year.) Women should be encouraged enter politics at a younger age and should be able to remain active during the childbearing years, she said.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

The Center for American Women in Politics:

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation:

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