Capitol Alert

‘Year of the woman’? Not so much in California

Sen. Kamala Harris: Fight we will do, fight we will win

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., spoke to a crowd of thousands on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, during the Woman's March on Washington.
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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., spoke to a crowd of thousands on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, during the Woman's March on Washington.

The numbers are eye-popping. Last week, EMILY’s List, a political organization dedicated to electing Democratic women to office, announced that over 36,000 women had contacted them about running for office since Donald Trump was elected president in Nov. 2016. By comparison, just over 900 women reached out to the group over the entire course of the 2016 election cycle, EMILY’s List said.

The deluge of female candidates at the state and federal level, along with a surge of activism punctuated by the Women’s March and #MeToo movement, has sparked talk that 2018 will top 1992, the original “Year of the Woman.” An unprecedented number of women won seats in the House and Senate in that election, a year after Anita Hill drew attention to sexual harassment and a lack of female voices in Congress. California elected Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, becoming the first state to send two female senators to Washington.

There’s a difference, however, between women running and women winning. And California’s marquee races in 2018 are a sobering reminder that fielding more female candidates is just one step in the march towards equal representation.

With six weeks to go before the state’s June 5 primary, the women running for governor trail behind five men in the latest polling. Feinstein, now one of the highest-ranking women in the Senate, faces an intra-party challenge from state Sen. Kevin de León – and the California Democratic Party declined to endorse her reelection in February (although she’s still the heavy favorite to win). Recent polls also suggest it’s entirely possible that Democrats will not advance a single woman to the general election in the state’s seven most competitive congressional districts, all won by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

At the state Capitol, female candidates look to fare somewhat better. Democratic women finished at the top of the field in the special election this month for two Assembly seats, which were previously held by male legislators forced from office for #MeToo scandals. And women Democrats are contenders in several of 2018’s other competitive state Senate and Assembly seats. But as one moves up the June ballot, fewer and fewer appear to have a legitimate shot at winning in November.

“We do have a record number of female candidates, there’s no question about it,” said Professor Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. But the number of Democratic men is also at a historic high – more than any time since 1990, according to the New York Times. As a result, “women are still only a fraction of the men in these primaries,” Lawless pointed out.

The challenge is particularly acute in the most competitive federal and statewide races, which tend to draw more experienced, well-funded candidates of both genders. That’s certainly the case in California’s top 2018 House contests in the Central Valley and Southern California, where vulnerable Republican incumbents have drawn hordes of Democratic challengers.

Even after an aggressive effort to thin the fields in several of those contests, at least four Democrats remain on the June ballot in six of the seven districts. Of the 31 Democrats certified for the primary in those races, 12 were women. Two have since suspended their campaigns. And for a variety of reasons, Democratic strategists believe only two or three have a real shot at making it to the general election in November.

Fundraising is one significant factor. Fourteen Democrats running in those House districts have reported raising more than $1 million through March 31, but the top four, and eight out of the top ten, are men. Most are also self-funders. The top two female fundraisers – Dr. Mai Khanh-Tran and Sara Jacobs, the granddaughter of Qualcomm’s billionaire founder – have also loaned or donated significant sums of their own money to their campaigns.

“As long as there’s a pay gap and women are making roughly 80 cents on the dollar, men are going to be in a better position to self-fund,” Lawless observed.

In Tran’s case, even a roughly $500,000 personal loan plus another $700,000 from donors has still not been enough to keep up financially with two multi-millionaire Democrats – both male. The Orange County pediatrician has been swamped by health insurance executive Andy Thorburn and lottery winner and Navy veteran Gil Cisneros. On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) named Cisneros to its “Red to Blue” program, a tacit, if not official, endorsement from the national party in the 39th district race.

A Democratic official said the decision was based on Cisneros’ string of local endorsements and lead among fellow Democrats in the polls. Local strategists say Tran has not run a particularly strong race. Party officials tried to convince her to drop out earlier this year, citing concerns Democrats could splinter their vote in June and get shut-out of the open seat race, entirely.

Tran’s response: “How are you asking me, the only woman candidate, the only capable, qualified woman candidate who has been running for 10 months, who has outraised everybody, how are you looking at me as a non-viable candidate?”

The DCCC is expected to make further moves to support House candidates in races where Democrats risk being left out of the general election thanks to California’s top-two “jungle” primary.

The California Democratic party declined to endorse in most of the hotly contested House races. In the two crowded Democratic races where it has weighed in – in Orange County districts currently held by Republicans Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher – it endorsed male candidates. A third male candidate, Bryan Caforio, won a pre-endorsement vote from the party over three female candidates. But rival Democrat Katie Hill succeeded in challenging the endorsement at the party convention.

The state party endorsed a female candidates in another race where Democrats are targeting a Republican incumbent, albeit with longer odds: Jessica Morse in the Sacramento-area 4th congressional district now held by Rep. Tom McClintock. With three female Democrats vying for the seat, McClintock is very likely to face a woman in the general election.

Male Democrats in the top seven races have also won the lion’s share of endorsements from prominent liberal groups. EMILY’s List has countered by endorsing Democratic women in six of top seven most competitive House races in the state. But thus far, it’s only run advertising on behalf of one of them – spending more than half a million dollars in Jacobs’ San Diego-area race.

Tran said EMILY’s List has helped her immeasurably, both with fundraising and compiling her campaign team. But she’s been sounding the alarm that there’s more for women’s groups and activists to do in 2018. “Women candidates in these flippable districts are being eliminated,” she lamented. “I reached out to EMILY’s List and said, ‘you have to help us!’”

Democratic women do have one major advantage over their male counterparts in 2018, according to Lawless: they “represent the antithesis of the Trump administration.” But she doesn’t expect the gender gap in Congress to close significantly in one election cycle. 2018, she said, is “really a huge year of the Democrat and then, secondarily, a year of the woman.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei