Across the United States, 2018 is being heralded as the Year of the Woman in American politics. Building on a surge of activism following the election of Donald Trump, including the national women’s marches and the #metoo movement, the “Pink Wave” in electoral politics has led this year to a record number of women running for Congress and securing party nominations. There will be 239 women on the ballot for House seats in November, compared to a previous high of 167, and 23 women on the ballot for Senate, breaking the prior record of 18. There will also be a record number of female nominees for Governor (16) on the ballot this November.
Oklahoma currently has among the lowest levels of female political representation. With only 21 female legislators out of 149 members of the Legislature (14.1 percent), we rank ahead of only Wyoming in the percentage of female legislators, and well below other states in our region. And the situation isn’t improving – the number of women in the Legislature has been stuck between 19 and 21 since 2012. Two years ago, when there were 43 new members elected to the Legislature, only five were women, although two additional women have since won seats in special elections. At the federal level, despite Oklahoma, in 1921, having elected the second-ever female Congressperson, only one other woman – Mary Fallin – has been elected to Congress in state history.
Will Oklahoma make gains in increasing the number of female lawmakers in 2018? A careful look at candidate filings and results from the state’s primary elections shows that there is almost certain to be some increase in the number of women elected to the Legislature in November. But with few female Republicans on the ballot, any chance of a wave of women being swept into office will depend on Democrats making significant gains in November.
Most women on the November ballot are Democrats
There will be 73 women on the ballot in November in state legislative races – 14 competing for the 24 Senate seats up for election this year and 59 for the 101 House seats (for this analysis, we are counting candidates who ran unopposed or who won their seats in the primary as being on the ballot in Novemberr. For a list of candidates on the ballot in November, click here). Of these 73 female candidates, 50 will be Democrats and just 17 will be Republicans. There will also be five Independents and one Libertarian.
The huge gap between the number of female Democrats and Republicans on the ballot reflects big differences between the parties both in the number of women running for office and their success in party primaries. For the Democrats, 2018 is the year when the party has approached gender parity. Women made up 46 percent of Democratic candidates who filed for seats in the Legislature and 47 percent of those who emerged from the primary and will be on the general election ballot in November. For Republicans, few women filed for office and even fewer succeeded in winning their party’s nomination. Of the 250 Republicans who ran in the primaries, just 23 percent were women. And of the 112 Republicans who will appear on the November ballot, just 17, (15 percent) are women. In the August runoff, Republican women won only three of 12 contests for the House and Senate that pitted a female candidate versus a male.
There will almost certainly be more women in the Legislature in 2019
To get a sense of what female representation might look like after the November elections, let’s start with the 21 seats currently held by women – seven in the Senate (four Republicans, three Democrats) and 14 in the House (eight Republicans and six Democrats).
Of those 21 incumbent women, seven will not be back in 2019, either because they did not run for re-election or have been defeated. Of those seven open seats, three are assured of being won by men because there is no woman on the general election ballot (SD 20, SD 48 and HD 101). Conversely, in HD 71, the general election features female candidates from both major parties so a woman is assured of winning. Of the other three seats, a woman is likely to win HD 45 (Merlyn Bell running for the seat vacated by Rep. Claudia Griffith). Men are likely to win HD 47 formerly held by Rep. Leslie Osborn and HD 100, formerly held by Rep. Elise Hall, although Democratic challenger Marilyn Stark stands a chance in HD 100.
Most or all of the 14 remaining female incumbents will be back in 2019. Six of the 14 have been assured re-election because they ran unopposed (Sen. Kay Floyd, Rep. Emily Virgin), won a winner-take-all primary (Rep. Regina Goodwin, Rep. Rhonda Baker), or are not on the ballot in 2018 (Sen. Julie Daniels, Sen. Alison Ikley-Freeman). At least seven of the eight incumbents who are on the November general election ballot look to be strong favorites to win re-election – Sen. Kim David (R – SD 10), Sen. Stephanie Bice (R- SD 22), Rep. Jadine Nollan (R – HD 66), Rep. Carol Bush (R – HD 70), Rep. Meloyde Blancett (D – HD 78), Rep. Tammy West (R – HD 84) and Rep. Cyndi Munson (D – HD 85). Of the incumbents, Rep. Karen Gaddis (D – HD 75) faces the most difficult fight for re-election: she won a special election in 2017 in a district where Republicans enjoy a 16-point advantage in voter registration.
Overall, of the 21 seats currently held by women, 15 or 16 are likely to still be held by women after November. What about the seats currently held by men? How many of these seats will flip to women? We can divide these into four categories:
- There are seven seats now held by men where a woman has already won the seat – Ajay Pittman in HD 99 – or both major candidates are women – SD 16, SD 42, HD 41, HD 42, HD 48 and HD 82. Other than HD 99 and SD 16, those seats are all currently held by Republicans.
- There are three seats currently held by Republican men where a female Republican is the nominee and is the prohibitive favorite to win in November: HD 20, where Sherry Conley would replace Bobby Cleveland; HD 65, where Toni Hasenback would replace Scooter Park, and HD 69, where Sheila Dills would replace Chuck Strohm.
- There are four seats currently held by Democratic men where a Democratic woman is the nominee – HD 15 (now held by Ed Cannaday), HD 17 (Brian Renagar), HD 34 (Corey Williams) and HD 86 (Will Fourkiller). In HD 34, which includes Stillwater, Republicans enjoy a slight registration advantage. In the other three districts, all rural, Democrats enjoy a sizeable advantage in voter registration, but these districts are trending Republican, and Democrats have struggled in recent years to hold on to these kinds of seats once incumbents retire.
- There are some dozen seats currently held by Republicans where a female Democrat stands a reasonable shot of defeating a male Republican in November. Two of these are in the Senate: SD 30, where Julia Kirt faces John Symcox for the seat vacated by David Holt, and SD 40, where Carri Hicks will face Joe Howell, who defeated incumbent Senator Ervin Yen in the primary. These are both urban Oklahoma City districts that have been trending towards the Democrats in recent years. Jennifer Esau, a Claremore teacher, may also stand a chance of unseating Marty Quinn in SD 2. The other seats where Democratic women have a chance at flipping a seat held by a Republican man are all in the House. They include three open seats – HD 79 in Tulsa, HD 83 in Edmond, and HD 95 in Midwest City – where strong female candidates are running, and a half-dozen seats where Republican incumbents may be vulnerable to female challengers because they angered teachers (Kevin McDugle in HD 12, Tommy Hardin in HD 49, Kevin West in HD 54), or Democrats enjoy a large advantage in party registration (Avery Frix in HD 13, Speaker Charles McCall in HD 22).
Overall, if Democratic women can hold two of the four seats currently held by a Democratic man and pick up four to six of the competitive seats currently held by Republican men, we could see the number of women in next year’s Legislature climb to the mid-30s. That would be a significant increase from the current 21 but would still mean that fewer than one in four Oklahoma legislators will be women. As long as Oklahoma remains a staunchly Republican state and the Republican Party continues to nominate few women, gender parity in the Oklahoma Legislature will remain an elusive target.