Ohio is considered a bellwether state: if you want to know what is going on in national politics, just look to Ohio. This also appears to be true with regards to the surge in female candidates in this year’s midterm elections. Ohio is seeing record numbers of women running for U.S. House and the state legislature. Most notably, like we see across the country, the dramatic increase in female candidates is decidedly blue: almost all of the female candidates in Ohio are Democrats.
It is particularly important to look at what’s happening in state legislatures. Candidates who run – and win – a state legislative seat are potential candidates for U.S. Congress. A significant proportion of members of the U.S. House and Senate are former state legislators. State legislatures are the “farm team.” If we are not seeing significant growth in the numbers of female candidates here, this has ramifications for the long-term impact of the 2018 midterms.
Women are currently 17% of Ohio’s 18-member congressional delegation, slightly below the overall proportion of women in Congress (20%). In primary races for the U.S. House this year, similar to national trends, there was a substantial increase in the number of women running, especially compared to the previous election cycle in Ohio. In 2016, only 6 women ran in House primaries. In 2018, a record-setting 17 women ran, and 11 won their primaries. However, women were still only 20% of filed congressional candidates in Ohio.
Women are 32% of congressional nominees on the ballot this November. As we’ve seen nationwide, Democratic women dominate these nominations; just 1 of 11 women congressional nominees from Ohio is a Republican. Also similar to national trends, just 3 of the women nominees, all Democratic incumbents, are running in contests that favor their party; all but one of the remaining women nominees are challenging favored incumbents. These data suggest that, in the end, we may not see much of an increase in the number of women in Ohio’s U.S. House delegation.
State Legislative Success?
While much of the attention to women’s electoral surge and success has focused on the federal level this year, looking at women’s state legislative candidacies demonstrates the degree to which these trends persist down-ballot.
Ohio provides a case worth watching here. Ohio currently ranks 29th out of the 50 states based on the proportion of women in the state legislature. Women are 18% of members of the Ohio State Senate and 25% of members of the Ohio State House. By comparison, women are 25.5% of state legislators nationwide.
While only 13 women ran in the primaries for Ohio’s State Senate, making them about one-third of all primary candidates, they had spectacularly high success rates: 11 women candidates won and will be running in the general election in November. This is more than twice the number of general election nominees in 2016.
Very few of these women, however, are from the GOP. Only 2 female Republicans ran in the primaries – representing just 9% of all Republican candidates – but they both won. Ohio has term limits for the state legislature, and there are very few incumbents running for state senate this cycle. Ten of the 17 seats up for grabs in 2018 are open seats, and women are taking advantage: 8 of the 11 women running in the general election are running in open seats.
On the state house side, women were about 30% of all primary candidates – 18% of Republican candidates and 41% of Democratic candidates, and female candidates had higher success rates than their male counterparts. In the general election, there will be record number of women running, 57, an increase of 10 from 2016. Six races will feature two female candidates.
This is, however, also an overwhelmingly blue trend. Women make up almost half of all Democratic nominees. The number of Republican women running in the general election has actually declined by a third in 2018 compared to 2016. Unlike state senate candidates, two-thirds of all state house candidates are incumbents, but only 20% of these incumbents are female. However, women are taking advantage of open seats: out of the 32 open seat contests, 16 will feature female candidates.
Changing the Face of Politics in Ohio?
While we are seeing record numbers of women running for U.S. House in Ohio, it is unlikely that there will be much of an increase in the number of women in Ohio’s congressional delegation. Given the partisan gerrymandering in Ohio, all 3 of Ohio’s female incumbents will easily hold on to their seats, as will most of the male incumbents. In the one open seat featuring a female candidate, Ohio’s 16th district, Democrat Susan Moran Palmer faces an uphill battle, as the seat is rated safe for the Republican. There are however, two seats, District 10 and District 14, where Democratic women are challenging Republican incumbents that are potentially vulnerable if 2018 turns into a “shellacking” for the GOP nationally. If the election is a wave for the Democrats, Ohio could increase the number of women it sends to the U.S. House from 3 to 5.
In the state senate, there are currently 6 women, 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans. Two of the Republican women are not up for reelection this cycle (terms are staggered), and one of the Democratic incumbents who is running will most likely keep her seat. One open seat senate race features 2 women, so there will be at least 4 women in the state senate after the November election. There are 6 more women running in open seats, 5 of them Democrats, and at least 1 Democrat and 1 Republican have a very good chance of winning, so it seems likely that the number of women in the state senate will at least hold at 6.
Ohio’s state house elections mirror U.S. House elections in one important way: many of them are not particularly competitive. In 8 of Ohio’s 99 state house elections, Republicans have not even bothered putting up a candidate. And even with term-limits, there are 66 incumbents seeking reelection, and the vast majority of these incumbents, 80%, are men. In 2016, 25 women were elected to serve in the state house. About half, 13, of these women are running for reelection, and will most likely hold on to their seats. With 6 districts featuring 2 female candidates, and 2 more women running unopposed, this means that at least 21 women will be elected (23 women currently serve in the Ohio state house).
All of this suggests that Ohio is a bellwether not just for the national mood in presidential elections, but in 2018, for female candidates. As we have seen nationally, while there has been a surge in the number of women running, the vast majority of them are Democrats who are running against Republican incumbents, so actual gains in female representation are unclear. In Ohio, this is true in U.S. House races and campaigns for state legislature. If Ohio is to even meet the 25% mark in the state capitol, a blue wave will have to wash over down-ballot races as well as congressional elections.
All data are provided from the Center for Women and Politics of Ohio, Baldwin Wallace University and the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.
Dr. Barbara Palmer is a Professor of Political Science and the Creator and Executive Director of the Center for Women and Politics of Ohio at Baldwin Wallace University.