A Look at Down-Ballot Women Candidates Running for Office in the Election 2020
(From left) Hilary Franz, Jacquelyn McMiller, Anna Tovar and Dr. Shelley Lenz are vying for state and local seats on Election Day. (Images provided by the candidates’ official campaigns; composite image by Christina Kelly.)

We’re looking down (our ballots) to look ahead.

Election Day 2020 is finally approaching. And while we have been closely watching the Presidential race, we’ve also been looking at candidates who are running for positions at lower, but still critical, levels of government. Especially following the Blue Wave of 2018 — and the record number of women candidates that came with it — we wondered how many present contenders for public office are women.

[Related: 100 Years of Power — Women’s History Like You’ve Never Heard It]

It turns out state-wide races are — still — hardly women’s spaces. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, only three major-party gubernatorial candidates are women, throughout 11 races in all; and just 35 women remain in play for the 165 other down-ballot, state-wide seats around the country. 

To put it another way, “women are more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, but remain less than 36 percent of all major-party nominees for congressional and statewide executive offices in the 2020 election,” researchers say.

Still, those women, if elected in their respective races, would have the power to make big changes happen on behalf of a lot of people. That’s why, through this mini-series, we’ll be spotlighting four down-ballot women candidates throughout the country — ones who are vying for both well-known positions and ones you’ve probably never heard of before (but who would control far more than you think). 

[Related: These Two Activists are Elevating Black Women in U.S. Politics]

These offices matter. It’s why grassroots groups like the Texas Organizing Project, a 10-year-old organization that aims to empower Black and Latinx voters and get progressive candidates into office, focus squarely on down-ballot races. “Everybody knows what’s at stake at the top of the ticket,” says Brianna Brown, TOP’s deputy director. But it’s often local politicians — from sheriffis to district attorneys to school board members — who enact policies “most deeply felt” by communities of color. “If you have a pothole, you are not going to call the President,” she says. “You are going to round up 20 of your friends and go down to City Hall.” 

For this project, we spoke with a mix of women running for just such offices around the country. They are: Hilary Franz, running to be re-elected as Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington state; Jacquelyn McMiller, running to be mayor of Fort Myers, Florida; Dr. Shelley Lenz, running to be governor of North Dakota; and Anna Tovar, running for a seat on Arizona’s Corporate Commission. (All are running as Democrats or progressives — we had reached out to a number of Republican and conservative candidates, but did not hear back.)

[Related: The Movement to Get More Women into U.S. Politics]

We looked at the ways in which these women led in their work and communities before getting into electoral politics, why they decided to run for office, how their families and lived experiences influenced their perspectives, and what they hope to accomplish if they win this year. 

We found their stories to be as different as the women themselves. There’s the court stenographer who wants to fix the cracks she saw firsthand in our criminal justice system. There’s also the Mexican-American teacher and cancer survivor who became a longtime elected official; the veterinarian running in her first major race — for governor; and the environmental lawyer who dreamed of running for office as a child. Their priorities are similarly varied, tailored to address the duties of the offices they wish to hold and the needs of their respective intended constituents — though some issues, like the coronavirus crisis and the ongoing threat of climate change, are concerns for everyone.

[Related: These Businesswomen Are Fed Up and Running for Congress in 2020]

But when boiled down, their motivation is shared: to enact policies that positively impact the lives of others. Some have already done so while holding office, while others are formulating how they would make a difference if similarly given the opportunity. Still, the goal is the same — to effect change from the inside. 

And we’ll be eagerly watching to see how they do.

Colleen DeBaise contributed to this article.

Candidate Profiles

She Stood Up to Trump on Behalf of the Environment. She’s Running to Continue Protecting It
Hilary Franz used her first term as Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington to advocate for the environment. It’s work she wants to keep doing.

A Former Court Stenographer Could Become This Florida City’s First Black Woman Mayor
Jacquelyn McMiller spent years working inside the justice system. Now, she’s running for office so she can make it better.

Frustrated by North Dakota’s Response to Covid-19, a Veterinarian Runs for Governor
Masks aren’t mandated. Coronavirus is spiking. Dr. Shelley Lenz has had enough.

This Mayor Is Running for a Powerful Arizona Office You’ve Likely Never Heard Of
By running for the Arizona Corporation Commission, Anna Tovar aims to represent fellow Latinx Arizonians on a state level.