November’s midterm elections produced several landmark election outcomes worthy of celebration. For the first time in history, the United States has entered double-digits and broken its own record for the number of women governors.
The 12 women elected or re-elected governor in November eclipse the previous (and current) record of nine. Importantly, three of these states—Arkansas, Massachusetts, and New York–elected a woman governor for the first time in their state history. Arkansas elected a Republican while Massachusetts and New York elected Democrats. Now, 60% of American states (30 out of 50) have elected a woman as governor at least once
While we might not agree with all of these candidates, this landmark moment is worth celebrating as more women in office is a step in the right direction. However, we can’t help wondering, what of the other 20 states? Are voters aware of whether their state has previously elected a woman governor? Does that knowledge correspond with whether they think they live in a state that might in the future? In other words, does it matter if the general public knows about this gender gap in state politics? We set off to find out.
Our current research explores factors shaping voter’s confidence and optimism that their state could elect a woman governor soon. We surveyed more than 1,500 Americans on their views concerning women in office. Forty-four percent of Americans believe they live in a state that has elected a woman governor, compared to 56% who believe they do not. This knowledge, however, may not be rooted in reality.
States some of us might assume have elected a woman governor, such as California or Illinois, have not, in fact, elected a woman governor in their state’s history. In contrast, states that some of us might assume have never elected a woman governor, like Alabama and Arizona, have most frequently elected a woman for this coveted position. In other words, states deemed “true blue” or “ruby red” may have a more complicated history with electing women governors than meets the eye.
In our study, we found that only 24% of respondents correctly identified living in a state that previously elected a woman governor. However, 43% were able to correctly identify that they live in a state that has never elected a woman governor, at least prior to the 2022 midterms. In addition, 33% of respondents incorrectly answered this question (i.e., if a respondent lived in a state that has elected a woman governor, they reported that their state had never elected a woman governor, or vice versa). These findings are important as they relate to optimism toward electing a woman governor in the future. Our research suggests that believing your state has elected a woman in its history is a stronger predictor of optimism than knowledge of whether or not your state actually has elected a woman governor.
Understanding how and when women run for office could be a useful exercise as voters consider future prospects for their political leaders. Therefore, it is worth exploring the circumstances and contexts of the women who won the November 2022 midterm elections. After all, your state could be next.
All eight women who ran as incumbents were re-elected in November. This includes Republican incumbents in the historically Republican states of Alabama, Iowa, and South Dakota, as well as Democratic incumbents in the historically Democratic states of Maine, New Mexico, and New York. Even in swing states like Michigan and (historically-Republican) Kansas, women Democratic incumbents won. In addition, South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem and Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer are also potential presidential candidates in 2024 or beyond.
Four states elected women candidates in open races in Arkansas, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Oregon. The victors in Massachusetts and Oregon were also the first self-identified lesbians elected in their states’ histories. Taken together, women governors were elected in red, blue, and purple states. Women governors were elected both as Democrats (seven) and Republicans (five), covering a wide range of ideological and policy preferences. Some of them we agree with and some we do not, but electing more women will make it easier for voters in all states to elect the ones we do agree with in the future.
The 2022 election also set a record for the number of races between two women candidates where both the Democratic and Republican parties nominated a woman. In Alabama, incumbent (R) Governor Kay Ivey defeated Yolanda Flowers (D). In Arizona, Katie Hobbs (D) narrowly defeated Kari Lake (R). Iowa incumbent Kim Reynolds (R) defeated Deidre DeJear (D). Likewise, Michigan incumbent Gretchen Whitmer (D) defeated Tudor Dixon (R). Perhaps most notably in Oregon, Tina Kotek (D) defeated Christine Drazen (R) while Betsy Johnson also won almost 9% of the vote as an independent candidate.
If women run for office, they can win. Women candidates are not monolithic. Some are worth celebrating and others are worth fighting against tooth and nail. Like all political candidates, voters ought to consider a number of different factors when casting their vote, but regardless of the state you call home, the midterm elections have taught us that if you cast a vote for a woman governor, you might just help make history.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Gregory Shufeldt is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. His teaching and research interests include state and local government, political parties, and political inequality.
Ashley Hutson is a lecturer at Butler University in the Department of Sociology & Criminology. Her research and teaching interests include racial, class, and gender inequalities in the areas of sexual violence and political sociology.
Laura Merrifield Wilson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis and an alumna of the Public Voices Fellowship. Her specializations include gender politics, campaigns and elections, and state government.