Democrats eager to see more women in office had reason to celebrate after last night’s primary results. Pennsylvania, which currently has no women in its U.S. House delegation, is now almost sure to get at least three sworn in next year.
In the safely Democratic 4th and 5th congressional districts, state Rep. Madeline Dean and former school board member Mary Gay Scanlon, respectively, emerged victorious from their hotly contested fields. And in the bluish 6th, military veteran and first-time candidate Chrissy Houlahan ran unopposed, after her lone opponent, also a woman, dropped out after the district lines were redrawn by court order.
And while Democrats can’t be quite as confident about their general election chances in the swinging 7th, former Allentown City Solicitor Susan Wild beat back male challengers on her left and right flank to claim that nomination. Beyond Pennsylvania, in the redder 2nd District of Nebraska, nonprofit Kara Eastman edged out former Rep. Brad Ashford. And in Idaho, Democrats made history by choosing a Native American woman, Paulette Jordan, for governor over a white male seeking his second consecutive nomination.
However, women didn’t run the table. Military veteran Rachel Reddick was trounced by wealthy philanthropist Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania’s 1st District. Twenty-six year-old former Obama administration aide Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson appears to have come up a few hundred votes short in the 10th District against pastor and veteran George Scott. And neither of the two Keystone State women vying for lieutenant governor could overcome the tattooed force of nature that is four-term Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.
Why did some women perform better than others? What lessons can other future candidates take from last night? Here are four key takeaways:
1. Ideological Purity Is Not Required
Eastman’s upset in Nebraska is a case where progressive activist organizations, including Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Justice Democrats, helped a populist candidate defeat a moderate endorsed by the party’s official House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Progressive groups also contributed to Jordan’s victory in Idaho, though the policy differences between her and her opponent were relatively minor. No doubt there is an energetic constituency, looking to use the primary process to push the party leftward, which candidates can tap.
But in Pennsylvania, left-wing orthodoxy was not essential. Two male candidates endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive groups, Rick Lazer in the 5th and Greg Edwards in the 7th, were defeated by women who did not forcefully back Sanders’ signature single-payer health insurance proposal. (Both Wild and Scanlon expressed support of single-payer as a long-term goal while emphasizing immediate improvements to the Affordable Care Act.)
That does not mean Sanders’ name is mud in the Keystone State, or that single-payer is necessarily an ideological albatross. The victorious lieutenant governor nominee, Fetterman, campaigned with Sanders. Wallace won the 1st, and Dean won the 4th, while championing Medicare for All.
But female candidates could also display a more, dare we say, Hillaryesque incrementalism and still defeat more ideologically ambitious opponents. Wild, who had the backing of the powerful Democratic women’s organization EMILY’s List, called herself both a “progressive” as well as “the grown-up in the room” willing to compromise. Scanlon similarly offered a careful position on raising the minimum wage, supporting $15 an hour as “a goal” but favoring a “gradual increase” so as not to spark inflation and harm “small businesses.”
The simmering intraparty debate over whether populism or pragmatism provides the best path to victory will likely carry over to the general election, since it appears Democrats of different stripes will be able to claim nominations. Female primary candidates need not presume there is only one lane on which they must travel.
2. Being a Proud Democrat Is Required
Supporters of Rachel Reddick complained that she was wildly outspent by the multimillionaire Wallace 16-to-1. Fellow veteran Rep. Seth Moulton vented on Twitter, “the campaign finance crisis stacks the odds against candidates like @RachelReddick.”
But other military veteran candidates across the country are doing just fine with fundraising. Reddick just couldn’t come up with the scratch because she botched her own introduction to voters.
She failed to tell people in the 1st District that until late last year, she was a registered Republican. Then, when the information was uncovered, she claimed that in her heart she had been a Democrat since 2006, and weakly blamed her Republican registration on “some clerical error or lack of follow-up on my part.”
Democrats have been fairly welcoming to converts, but Reddick’s lack of candor raised questions about her sincerity. Wallace soon earned the local party’s official endorsement, and Reddick never recovered.
3. It’s Good To Have Money … But It’s Better To Have Local Money
Wallace may have had a sizable financial advantage over Reddick, but money didn’t determine every race. In the 10th District, Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson raised nearly twice as much money as the apparent winner, George Scott. However, most of that money was from Silicon Valley, not central Pennsylvania (perhaps aided by her endorsement from EMILY’s List). But a local dollar is more potent than an outside dollar, because local donors are typically active in their communities and double as neighborly campaign surrogates.
Moreover, Corbin-Johnson, though a York County native, had been living for years in Washington, D.C., so she didn’t have a well-nurtured local network to carry her over the finish line. Scott, meanwhile, had some solid local endorsements, including Pennsylvania women’s rights activist Kate Michelman. And he made the most of his small war chest with a provocative ad in which he defends gun control by burning an assault rifle in a bonfire.
Coming home from another state to run for office isn’t impossible; Wallace had to overcome charges leveled by Reddick of being a “Maryland multimillionaire” who also lives in a South African “luxury estate.” But he made up for those demerits with local endorsements, a heavy emphasis on his Bucks County upbringing and the occasional mention that his grandfather was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president.
Those who already live in the districts they are running in still need sufficient money to compete. Scanlon raised the most in her 5th District race, though not by much, mostly from people in her law firm—Ballard Spahr, one of the biggest law firms in the country—where she handles pro bono cases.
Getting money from your own law firm might not stir the soul like a “people-powered” small-donor-driven campaign. However, such efforts require candidates with big personalities, and media teams that can produce viral videos to grab people’s attention. That’s not realistic for most congressional candidates. But tapping what in-state networks you do have is realistic, and more effective than relying on out-of-state cash. Corbin-Johnson learned that the hard way.
4. Just Being a Woman Isn’t Enough
Corbin-Johnson and Reddick had an advantage that Scanlon and Dean did not; each was the only woman in her race, facing off against multiple men. Theoretically, if they could hold the women’s vote, that would have been enough to reap a plurality. But they couldn’t.
Scanlon survived a scrum of six women and four men, needing only 28 percent of the vote to win. But Dean, of the 4th District, was in a particularly precarious situation: a three-person race with two women. The female vote could have split, allowing the man—a well-known former congressman—to win.
Dean solved that problem through sheer dominance. She had the credential of being a state representative, whereas the other woman had not previously held elective office. Dean was the clear fundraising champ, buoyed by her own $250,000 loan to the campaign. And she racked up big endorsements, including EMILY’s List and former Gov. Ed Rendell. In turn, she crushed the competition, winning nearly three-quarters of the vote.
Considering how many Democratic women are running for office, and how well many of them did last night, the appetite among Democrats for making 2018 a new Year of the Woman is indisputably strong. But even in some of the races where women won, women lost as well. Democratic women have gotten the message that you can’t win unless you run. Nevertheless, while showing up is necessary, it is hardly sufficient.