Women candidates surge but face tough fights in battle for U.S. Congress

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(Reuters) – Dozens of women on Tuesday won congressional and gubernatorial nominations as voters in eight U.S. states chose candidates ahead of November’s elections, including several who notched firsts in a year boasting a historic number of female contenders.

FILE PHOTO: Abby Finkenauer, a Democratic candidate trying to unseat Republican incumbent Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st congressional district, is pictured on the grounds of the house in which she grew up in Sherril, Iowa, U.S. March 31, 2018. Picture taken March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Tim Reid/File Photo

But many of those women – particularly Democrats – will face tough contests in November. They will be running against entrenched Republican incumbents or in conservative-leaning districts.

“A lot of them are running in pretty competitive primaries but in districts that are ultimately not going to be that competitive in the general election,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.

A record number of women have filed to run for Congress in the first midterm election since President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, with some saying they are motivated by criticisms of his treatment of women and by the ongoing #MeToo movement that has targeted sexual misconduct.

They have outperformed men in U.S. House of Representatives races so far, driven almost entirely by Democrats, according to data compiled by Kelly Dittmar, a professor with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Women made up 36 percent of Democratic House candidates but represent 46 percent of the nominees in the 20 states that have held primary elections thus far. That figure does not include California, where some races were still too close to call on Wednesday.

Lawless pointed out that the proportion of women among congressional candidates is only a few points higher than in 2016, given an increase in men running for office as well.

Instead, she said, the major difference this year is among female voters, as well as the attention paid to issues like sexual harassment.

“Democratic women in particular are more energized, more enthusiastic and more engaged than ever before,” she said, citing poll numbers.

Among those who prevailed on Tuesday was Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor who is seeking a competitive open seat in northern New Jersey that Democrats have not held in decades.

“We need a seat at the table,” Sherrill said on Wednesday. “We just don’t have a lot of women in politics.”

Democrats must net 23 seats to take control of the 435-seat House in November, which would likely stymie much of Trump’s agenda.

In Iowa, a state that has never elected a woman to the House, Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne finished ahead of male challengers in two Republican-held districts considered competitive this fall.

Two New Mexico House districts saw women win both the Democratic and Republican primary elections, including Deb Haaland, who could become the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

In Montana, Democrat Kathleen Williams beat two men with much deeper campaign pockets to advance to a key November race against an incumbent House Republican.

The crucial House races in California yielded more mixed results. Katie Porter, a law professor, earned a spot in November’s race against Republican U.S. Representative Mimi Walters, and Katie Hill, a 30-year-old former nonprofit director, appeared poised to take on Republican incumbent Steve Knight. But liberal female challengers in two other key races fell short.

Tuesday’s gains for female candidates were not limited to Democrats. In South Dakota, Iowa and Alabama – three states that have never elected a woman as governor – Republican women won nominations and are favored in November.

Even if women fail to capture many seats in November, Dittmar said their presence on the campaign trail would have a snowball effect.

“I think many of the women’s candidacies in 2018 may have a longer influence in inspiring other women to run,” she said.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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