IIn three states—Arkansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma—most of the candidates on the ballot for governor and lieutenant governor are women. If they win, it could mean women hold the top two seats in state government for the first time in United States history.
The women candidates span the political spectrum, from former Dayton, Ohio mayor Nan Whaley, a pro-abortion-rights Democrat running for governor, to a Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanderswho served as White House press secretary under former President Donald Trump and is running for governor of Arkansas.
Although the majority of candidates running for office this year are men, women are entering gubernatorial races at a higher rate than usual, said Jennifer Lawless, chair of the politics department at the University of Virginia. Women running for office no longer face the same biases or gender stereotypes they did 30 years ago, Lawless argued, as a result of the increasing polarization of American politics. “The upside of party polarization and the fact that politics has become so dysfunctional is that knowing whether a candidate is a Democrat or a Republican tells people almost everything they need to know,” said Lawless, whose research focuses on women in politics. . “This means that women have just as good a chance of being elected as men when the party makeup of their state matches them.”
Here’s what you need to know about the three states that could make history by electing women to both top state seats.
Experts believe Arkansas will likely be the first state to elect women to the governorship and lieutenant governorships for the first time.
Arkansas is a red state and Republicans hold both the governor’s office and the house and senate there from 2015. The gubernatorial race between Sanders and her Democratic challenger Chris Jones is “very likely” to end in a victory for Sanders, who has an 18.3-point lead, according to an analysis of polling data by Five thirty eight. The lieutenant governor race is between Republican Leslie Rutledge, who is the state’s current attorney general, and Democrat Kelly Kraut.
“As the first woman elected attorney general, I know the importance of breaking glass ceilings,” Rutledge told TIME in a statement, “but historic milestones should not come at the expense of America. We must elect women (and men) who will make America stronger and safer while always protecting our freedoms.
Kraut, who is a social worker and mother of seven and campaigned with Jones, who is black, told TIME that she appreciates the fact that the Arkansas governor’s race will be historic one way or another. “All the women in this race, myself, Leslie Rutledge and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, politically we’re all pretty young. We’re all mothers of young children, and I appreciate the representation out there because we’re showing other women that you can do this, too,” Kraut says. “To be perfectly honest, of course I want to elect the first black man to be governor, because electing women on the right is not going to be the step forward for women that we hope it will be. This will set Arkansas back.
The two women running for governor and lieutenant governor of Ohio may not fare as well as Sanders and Rutledge.
Whaley and her running mate Cheryl Stevens, a Cuyahoga County Councilwoman and black woman, emphasized the historic nature of their campaign. But polls show that the current president Governor Mike DeWine is likely to keep his seat — he and his teammate, John Husted, have a 20.7-point lead over Whaley and Stevens, according to FiveThirtyEight.
But female Democratic candidates hope the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down the constitutional right to abortion will motivate more Democrats to vote. “Now that the Supreme Court has sent the issue of abortion rights to the states, electing a pro-choice, female governor and lieutenant governor has never been more important,” a spokesman for the Whaley-Stephens campaign told TIME in a statement. “At this time, more than ever, we need women leaders who will fight for the rights of women in Ohio — and everyone working in Ohio.”
Still, pundits suggest that may not be enough to lift Whaley and Stevens to victory. “We know that abortion is one of the issues that can increase turnout this election cycle,” Lawless says. “However, the political climate and acceptance of a Republican incumbent, as well as the demographics and partisanship of this state, make it very, very difficult for a female Democratic candidate to win.”
Oklahoma’s gubernatorial race is one of the tightest in the country, with Democratic candidate Joy Hoffmeister struggling to defeat Republican incumbent Kevin Stitt.
Hofmeister is a lifelong Republican who only recently switched his party affiliation to Democrat to run against Stitt. “I’ve been a Republican longer than Governor Stitt has been registered to vote,” Hofmeister told TIME. “I’m fiscally conservative. I am aggressively moderate. I’ve always been.”
A woman is also running for lieutenant governor: Melinda Alizadeh-Fard, a Democrat and attorney. “This state has been red for too long, so long that the current administration is acting with carte blanche to disenfranchise women and our Native American tribes, and embrace nepotism and wasteful spending practices,” Alizadeh-Fard told TIME in a statement . “Having two women take it on just shows that we’re not afraid of the challenge of standing up for what’s right and protecting our people.”
The abortion issue could play a role in the outcome of the vote. Oklahoma has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, banning abortions even in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s health is at risk — a ban that Stitt signed into law and that even some conservatives criticized. Hofmeister, who says she is personally pro-life but believes abortion is a health decision between a woman and her doctor, told TIME she ran as a Democrat to oppose Stitt’s brand of Republicanism. “He caters to extremism,” she said.
Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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