For the first time in Iowa history, women will compete head-to-head in multiple federal races this fall.
Female candidates were elected Tuesday on the Democratic and Republican tickets for U.S. Senate, Iowa’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Congressional districts.
It’s a stark change from the state’s reputation before the 2014 elections, when Iowa was joined by only Mississippi in the dubious distinction of never electing a woman to federal office or as governor. After Joni Ernst’s U.S. Senate victory in 2014, Kim Reynolds became governor in 2017 with Terry Branstad’s departure, and Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne were the first women elected to the U.S. House from Iowa in 2018.
With this year’s slate of candidates now set, there is a strong possibility that Iowa’s federal delegation will be a majority of women after 2020, just six years after no Iowa woman served at that level.
The Senate race, featuring Democrat Theresa Greenfield and Ernst includes another woman, Suzanne Herzog, running as a “No Party” candidate.
In Eastern Iowa’s 1st District, Congresswoman Finkenauer will face state Rep. Ashley Hinson, her former colleague in the Iowa Legislature.
And in Southeast Iowa, the 2nd District will be represented by Democrat Rita Hart or Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.
The 3rd District, covering central and Southwest Iowa, also has the chance to be represented by a woman with Congresswoman Axne defending her seat against David Young.
Western Iowa’s 4th District is the only federal race this fall with no female candidate on the ballot.
That all means that Iowa’s federal delegation in 2021 could be four women and two men. At the very least, there will be a 50-50 split on gender.
“I can’t tell you how long we knocked on the door to get where we are now,” said Andy McGuire, former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a 2018 candidate for governor.
A Woman Will Be Senator
It wasn’t from lack of effort that Iowa women were left out of Congress for centuries.
Over the last 30 years, multiple female candidates have challenged Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a formidable longtime senator, but come up short. Jean Lloyd-Jones ran against him in 1992, the “Year of the Woman.” In recent elections, Roxanne Conlin, a Des Moines attorney, challenged Grassley in 2010. Patty Judge, a former lieutenant governor and past secretary of agriculture, took him on in 2016. Neither came within 20 points of the formidable longtime senator.
Ernst’s seat, because she is a first-term senator, is seen as a more likely pickup opportunity for Democrats than Grassley’s ever was. Incumbency provides a built-in advantage, however, and Republicans will spend significalty on the race as they fight to keep control of the Senate.
“I just don’t think there was a focus on the uniqueness of being a woman candidate,” said Bonnie Campbell, an Iowa attorney general and 1994 gubernatorial candidate, recalling the elections of Ernst, Finkenauer and Axne. “I think we’re used to seeing women giving driving, substantive speeches and not giving so much weight to the fact that this is a woman — it’s just another candidate running for office.”
Greenfield won convincingly Tuesday night, earning 47.7% support in the Democratic primary compared to the second-place candidate, Michael Franken, who received 25% support.
“This was a record-breaking turnout,” Greenfield said from a podium at her home, “and it shows the excitement that Iowans are hungry for a new leader and change.”
7 Female Candidates
“I’m gratified. I’m thrilled,” Conlin, also a 1982 gubernatorial candidate, said of the unprecedented number of women on the ballot this year.
“In 1982, it was a groundbreaking campaign, and after I lost I got literally thousands of letters,” she recalled. “So many of them talked about how inspired they were to go on, and frankly, in that campaign our volunteers went on to run for office and be elected in the Legislature, in the city councils, schools boards. It was amazing and wonderful, and that continues. It got the ball rolling in the sense that since 1982, there have been more and more and more women seeking public office. This is the culmination.”
In 2018, a record 117 women were elected or appointed to Congress, earning a “Year of the Woman” distinction first recorded in 1992 when four women were elected to the Senate and 24 to the House.
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump, Dianne Bystrom worried if women would be discouraged from running for office because of the sexism, misogyny and myriad insults hurled at Clinton. With the 2017 session of Ready to Run, a nationwide nonpartisan campaign training program, on the horizon, Bystrom was unsure how women would respond.
“I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to Ready to Run?’ Women are going to be devastated,” Bystrom, former director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in Politics, recalled. “Well, what happened is we started getting emails the day after the election in 2016 … we got 93 emails between the day after the election and the following Saturday of people asking us, ‘When is your next Ready to Run’ program?'”
In 2017, 172 women attended the multi-day program for aspiring candidates, including Cindy Axne, Theresa Greenfield, Kimberly Graham and Deidre DeJear, a 2018 candidate for secretary of state.
“What we experienced at the Catt Center was experienced nationwide,” Bystrom said. “Instead of women being disheartened at the loss of the first woman possible president in 2016, they seemed more incentivized to run. They wanted to make a difference.”
The Multiplier Effect
What explains the dramatic increase in women running for, and winning, elected office?
Campbell described a “cultural change” over the last half-century that accustomed people to seeing women in the workplace and, eventually, public office.
“Society has changed,” Conlin echoed. “Women have entered into the workforce, they’ve entered into all kinds of places where they never were before, and that continues in the political realm as women are more accepted, as women are more accomplished, as women are more willing to put themselves on the line. That seems to grow at each election.”
Scholars like Bystrom point to a concept known as the “multiplier effect,” which finds that the number of women running for elected office, regardless of political party, increases after a state elects its first woman either to the U.S. Senate or governor.
In 2014, Ernst and Staci Appel, running for Iowa’s 3rd District, were the female candidates for federal office. Two years later, three women for Congress were on the general election ballot: Patty Judge for U.S. Senate, Monica Vernon in the 1st District and Kim Weaver in the 4th District. None were elected that year, however. By 2018, that had changed. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer all won their races in November.
“Maybe the reason that we have Cindy and Abby, and hopefully Rita, is because we kept pushing that, because we had the Christie Vilsacks and the Roxanne Conlins, Elaine Baxters, who have run and kept running and kept knocking. And maybe that’s what finally pushes through,” McGuire said. “I have to believe that we did something in all of those years supporting women.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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