DES MOINES, Iowa — A record number of Iowa women are seeking political office, a surge driven by female Democratic candidates who like women across the country appear to be motivated in part by the election of President Donald Trump.
Data shows 98 women in Iowa are expected to have their names on the ballot for the June 5 primary. That’s a 44 percent increase from when 68 women ran in the 2016 primary.
The figures, which include female incumbents running for re-election, account for women seeking election to the state Legislature, Congress and statewide offices like governor. It was compiled by 50-50 in 2020, a nonpartisan Iowa organization that works to elect more women in the state.
“The more we see women running, the more women will run. The more we see women winning, the more women will run,” said Mary Ellen Miller, the group’s executive director.
The jump in female candidates is propelled by Democrats, according to the data. Of the 98 women on the ballot this year, 70 are Democrats. Republicans have 27 women on the ballot, and there is one libertarian.
Trump’s 2016 election was a catalyst for women, primarily Democrats, to mobilize, according to Judy Downs, executive director of Emerge Iowa. The left-leaning organization is part of a national umbrella that trains Democratic women to run for office.
The Republican president, who has denied multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior against women, has served at a time when the #MeToo movement has highlighted workplace misconduct and other abuses. Downs added the Women’s March, a worldwide protest held after Trump’s 2017 inauguration, encouraged women to run for office or to support other female candidates.
Besides Trump, Downs said Democratic women are motivated by opposition to policies backed by Republicans who hold majorities in the Iowa Legislature. That includes what Democrats see as inadequate education funding, limitations to women’s health and not enough improvements to privatized Medicaid.
“I think these are issues that really hit home for Democratic women,” she said.
Today there are new candidate recruitment efforts around the country, many aimed at education and training on what it takes to organize a successful campaign. Downs called it “a sense of momentum.”
Deidre DeJear, a Des Moines Democrat running for secretary of state, said she was motivated to seek office after the Republican-controlled Legislature approved a law requiring people to show identification to vote. DeJear, the only African-American woman on the primary ballot for statewide office this year and one of only a handful of African-Americans to ever be on the ballot for statewide office in Iowa, said her skin color has helped her focus on why she’s running.
“I’m black and I’m a woman, and obviously those specific groups fought tooth and nail for voting rights,” DeJear said. “When I think about us having a voter ID bill in our state that’s creating barriers for people to the ballot box, I’ve got two reasons why I need to be fighting.”
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican who is seeking re-election and championed the legislation, has strongly dismissed such allegations as inaccurate. The law will be in full effect in 2019.
There also is a surge in first-time female candidates for the Legislature. The total this year is 61, more than double the number in the 2012 primary when 27 first-time female candidates ran.
A first-time candidate this year is Carrie Koelker, a Republican from Dyersville in northeast Iowa. She’s seeking to challenge Sen. Tod Bowman, a Democratic incumbent from Maquoketa.
While Koelker said her long-term involvement in the community convinced her to run, she noted the fact that Sen. Amy Sinclair of Allerton is the sole female Republican senator at the statehouse. That’s despite major gains in female representation in other legislative areas.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst became the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress in 2014; House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, a Clear Lake Republican, was the first woman elected to the top position in 2015. Gov. Kim Reynolds became Iowa’s first female governor last year, though she’s seeking the title of first elected female governor this year.
“I think Iowa could use more elected women,” Koelker said. “I don’t think there’s a hidden secret there.”
But the gap between Democrats and Republicans running should not be ignored, said Jennifer Lawless, a government professor at American University who believes it’s better if women of both parties seek elected office.
Lawless has published extensive research on why women don’t run for office. According to the research, barriers include women thinking they’re unqualified to seek office despite comparable credentials to male candidates. Women are also less likely to be encouraged to run, both from party leaders as well as family and friends.
Lawless, who ran for Congress in 2006 in a Democratic primary, noted the country’s two-party system shifts power during different election cycles. If Republicans are in control with a small number of women in office within the party, there could be fewer opportunities for those women to lead on issues that are important to them.
“Unless we have women running on both sides of the aisle, and unless both Democratic and Republican voters have opportunities to cast ballots for female candidates, we’re still pretty far away from any semblance of gender parity,” she said.
Lawless said it’s too early to decipher what this election cycle will mean long-term for women in politics. But Miller, with the 50-50 in 2020 group, is hopeful it’s a sign the numbers haven’t peaked. Her organization is named after the goal of equal representation at the statehouse by 2020.
Iowa women represent just below 23 percent in the Legislature today, so Miller knows it won’t happen in the next two years. But she points out that some female candidates are launching long-shot campaigns against entrenched incumbents.
“I think you’re going to see some of these women back after they lose,” Miller said. “I think there really is a long game plan here.”