Election 2017: U.S. Women Run Races Big and Small

Voters around the U.S. take to the polls on Tuesday. We take a look at women appearing on ballots from Virginia to Washington state — and explain why these off-year, mostly state and local races matter.

By Candice Helfand-Rogers and Riva Richmond

Voters cast their ballots. (Credit: Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr)

The town of Greenwich, Conn., is governed by a group of 230 elected representatives from 12 town districts. The members of this Representative Town Meeting (RTM) have the power decide municipal expenditures exceeding $5,000, pass ordinances and establish committees to handle matters like labor contracts and redistricting.

On Election Day — which is tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 7 — all of those seats are up for grabs. And this year, more women than ever are vying for them. “Women were getting other women to say, ‘Hey, let’s not just run the PTA. Let’s get on the RTM,'” candidate Dr. Kerry Meyers told Vogue. “That’s where the power is, and it should be half women.”

Most Americans only focus on electoral politics during midterm and presidential election years, which happen next in 2018 and 2020, respectively. But a host of important races are being decided tomorrow that will directly impact people’s lives and take a pulse of the country — and many of them include women candidates.

Since President Donald Trump, a Republican, was elected last November, there has been a surge in female interest, especially among Democrats, in running for elected office. Many of these would-be candidates share Meyers’ desire to boost female representation in government. Emily’s List, an organization that supports Democratic female candidates, says more than 20,000 women have registered their interest in running for office in the last year.

What are this year’s most closely watched races involving female candidates? And why should voters get invested in local elections?

Virginia is the Main Attraction

Legislative and gubernatorial seats are on the line in several statewide races. The majority of races are taking place in Virginia and New Jersey, which have seen unprecedented numbers of female candidates emerge.

In Virginia, all 100 seats in the state’s House of Delegates are up for grabs in an election seen by many politics watchers as a temperature check of voters’ views on Trump’s presidency. “If Democrats managed to pick off 10 or more GOP-held [delegate] seats, it would send a signal that voters are in the mood to punish President Trump and Republicans,” writes the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan online newsletter.

A campaign worker knocks on doors for Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person running for Virginia House of Delegates in a major party. (Credit: Danica Roem campaign Instagram account)

Many more Democratic women are running for the state legislature this year, says Debbie Walsh, the director of Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. She is tracking 42, compared to 24 in 2013, the last comparable year in the U.S.’s 4-year cycle.

“This is angry Democratic women looking to unseat Republicans,” Walsh says. Of the 42 candidates, only 12 are incumbents and four are running for open seats — circumstances that are advantageous because incumbency is a huge advantage in the U.S. system. The remaining 26 candidates are challengers, 12 of whom are running in strong Republican districts. “So it’s really tough,” she says.

Female candidates hoping to take out Republicans include Danica Roem, who would be the first openly transgender woman to win election in Virginia, if she secures the 13th-district House delegate seat she seeks. House district 2 candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who won her primary by just 14 votes, and Democrat Hala Ayala, a first-time candidate running for delegate in the state’s 51st House district, are also competing hard for delegate seats. All three races are close, experts say.

The 2017 Virginia elections were a hot topic of discussion at the Women’s Convention in Detroit in late October, and a source of hope for activated progressive women. “We have a really good opportunity to elect a historic number of women in Virginia,” said Muthoni Wambu Kraal, vice president of training and outreach for Emily’s List.

Erin Vilardi, founder and director of VoteRunLead, which also trains women candidates, said she will be watching Virginia results closely, looking to glean success factors. “Was it that they were in demographic districts that were more racially and ethnically diverse? Was there a huge young population that turned out? So really understanding what happens in Virginia as a bellwether for state legislatures across the country,” she said.

Other Races to Watch

In New Jersey, voters will also find a host of women on the ballot. According to The Record, 78 women, 31 Republicans and 47 Democrats, are running for the legislature– a high for the state, and an increase from 46 women candidates in 2015.

Ileana Schirmer, a Republican state Senate candidate in New Jersey's state’s 14th district, talks with voters. (Credit: Ileana Schirmer campaign Facebook page)

Ileana Schirmer, a Republican state Senate candidate in New Jersey’s state’s 14th district, talks with voters. (Credit: Ileana Schirmer campaign Facebook page)

Voters will be selecting a new governor, choosing between Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Democrat Phil Murphy, who is leading the polls. Some of the other, more dramatic races include one between incumbent Republican State Senator Jennifer Beck and Democratic challenger Vin Gopal for the seat representing the 11th district, which has made headlines for the large sums of money both campaigns have spent. And the two-woman Senate race in the state’s 14th district between Linda Greenstein, the Democratic incumbent, and Ileana Schirmer, the Republican challenger, is said to be especially close.

On the other side of the country, Dr. Kathie Allen, a family physician, is running for Congress as the Democratic nominee in a special election in a reliably Republican district. She launched her campaign last year as a challenge to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, before he resigned earlier this year. She now faces Republican Bill Curtis. Meanwhile, history could be made by Michelle Darnell, who is running for a seat in the Washington state legislature. She would be the first Libertarian ever elected there if she wins.

A number of mayorships around the nation are also up for grabs. Democrat Vi Lyles is in the running in Charlotte, N.C., while in Minneapolis, incumbent Betsy Hodges and contender Nekima Levy-Pounds are in the ring, along with 14 other hopefuls. In Seattle, the battle is between Nikkita Oliver, Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. attorney ever appointed. And in New York City, voters will choose between Republican assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and Democratic incumbent Bill de Blasio.

The Importance of Local Races

Women are running races for many more, albeit lower-profile offices, hoping to make change, like those seeking to join Greenwich’s RTM. City and town councils, judgeships, school boards and other local governing bodies may not attract the attention of the national press, but the people in these positions make decisions that affect the lives of constituents all the same.

Democrat Vi Lyles, a candidate for mayor in Charlotte, N.C., meets with voters. (Credit: Vi Lyles campaign Instagram account)

Democrat Vi Lyles, a candidate for mayor in Charlotte, N.C., meets with voters. (Credit: Vi Lyles campaign Instagram account)

Heidi Sieck, co-founder #VoteProChoice, a grassroots abortion-rights organization, spoke with us on the sidelines of the Women’s Convention about the importance of local races on people’s lives. “If we want to create systemic change, we … need to be electing leaders that can lead systemic change,” she said. Local officials “are the people that are going to actually make the decisions.”

Sieck’s organization is lending aid by coordinating on-the-ground canvassing and texts and calls in support of candidates including Sophia Hawes-Tingey, a transgender woman mayoral candidate in Midvale, Utah, and Judge Ellen Ceisler, who is running for a seat on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

At the convention, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, urged the crowd attending her keynote address to get involved.” Now is the time to be smart and take that energy and passion we had in January and turn it into action with results,” she said, “Our power comes in coming together.”

Of course, not all of the women on the ballot on Tuesday will win, regardless of how mobilized their voter bases are. For those who do not succeed this time, Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers’ CAWP, speaking at the conference, offered some simple advice: Run again.

For more information on women in 2017’s bigger races, see CAWP’s list, and for more on local races, the U.S. government offers a searchable database. To see who’s on the ballot where you live, use Ballotpedia’s search tool to view a sample ballot. And, for women who are considering running for office, help is available from organizations like Emily’s List, Emerge America, VoteRunLead and She Should Run.


In the coming weeks, we will be sharing in-depth coverage of women running for office in 2018, and the organizations that are helping them. We’ll be following a number of races all year, up to Election Day 2018, so be sure to check back often for updates.

Posted: November 6, 2017

Candice Helfand-Rogers and Riva RichmondElection 2017: U.S. Women Run Races Big and Small