Bev. Perdue

(WOMENSENEWS)–Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue won the North Carolina gubernatorial election tonight, making her that state’s first female governor. In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire was declared a winner in her bid to hold onto the statehouse.

Of the four female gubernatorial candidates competing this election cycle, only Gregoire was an incumbent. With 43 percent of precincts counted at presstime, she had 52 percent of the vote. She and Perdue both ran strong campaigns against their Republican opponents through Election Day.

The other two candidates, Indiana’s Jill Long Thompson and Vermont’s Gaye Symington, both Democrats, lost their respective elections. Both fought longer odds and tougher poll numbers in their efforts to secure the statehouse. With the two defeats, the female ranks of governors won’t increase.

Female governorship has been thrust into the national spotlight this year with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s bid for the vice-presidency on the Republican ticket. A woman currently occupies the highest executive office in eight U.S. states, down from a record of nine, which stood until Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declined to seek re-election in 2007. And Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was term-limited and retired this year.

Although Palin will not be assuming vice-presidential duties, speculation has begun about her running for president in 2012.

Gregoire and Rossi Rematch

Gregoire won Washington in 2004 to become governor, narrowly defeating her opponent Dino Rossi by a razor-thin margin of 129 votes. Rossi, a Republican and former state senator, is her main challenger again this year. But despite the state’s Democratic inclinations and her record-shattering fundraising, the race was thought to be close.

Gregoire’s race was more difficult than many others primarily because the 2004 election and the subsequent litigation stemming over recounts and narrow results may have turned off voters and galvanized Washington Republicans, said Barbara Lee, principal of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a bipartisan group in Cambridge, Mass., conducting research on women seeking executive office.

Entering Election Day, Perdue was the most likely of the four female candidates to win office.

Projected to narrowly win in North Carolina with 50 percent of the vote, Perdue defeated Republican candidate Pat McCrory, a seven-term mayor of Charlotte, who had 47 percent. She will fill the seat left by the term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

Perdue’s race remained neck-and-neck down to the finish. Some attribute this to her inability to tap into a nationwide Democratic zeitgeist and translate it into results in North Carolina.

“People didn’t see her as representing change,” said Kerry L. Haynie, associate chair of political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “McCrory was more Democratic than her in some respects.”

Thompson and Symington Lose Races

The races in Indiana and Vermont proved to be more difficult for the female challengers hoping to win the governor’s office.

Thompson, a former Indiana congresswoman, faced a healthy lead by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, despite the state being split down the middle for the presidential election. Daniels held on to his lead to carry the state by double digits.

In Vermont, Symington lost her race after a three-way battle for the statehouse lessened her chances. Gov. Jim Douglas, her Republican opponent, pulled ahead commandingly as independent candidate Anthony Pollina gained the support of the state’s more progressive voters, siphoning votes away from Symington.

Both Thompson and Symington were up against popular incumbents, making their task very tough, said Lee.

“These women ran strong races but their opponents were just too tough,” Lee said.

Springboard Statehouses

Even if all four candidates had won their seats, the number of women in statehouses would comprise one-fifth of the nation’s governors. Gender parity is particularly important at the gubernatorial level because the position is so visible and also often serves as a springboard to even higher offices.

“Governorship is the path to the presidency,” said Illana Goldman, president of the Washington-based Women’s Campaign Forum. “If only a handful of governors are female, then that pipeline is diminished.”

Additionally, more female governors mean a new perspective and skill set in the statehouse, Goldman added.

“Anytime you add women to leadership you get the benefit of their different talents and different experiences,” she said.

Keith Staskiewicz is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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