In summary

As California women try to increase their numbers in political office this election and inch toward gender parity, their path may be complicated.

By Steve Swatt and

Steve Swatt is lead coauthor of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality,” pavingthewaycalifornia@gmail.com.

Susie Swatt, Special to CalMatters

Susie Swatt is lead coauthor of “Paving the Way: Women’s Struggle for Political Equality,” pavingthewaycalifornia@gmail.com.

There’s little doubt that California women have been on a political roll in recent years. A record 38 women now sit in the 120-member Legislature with one of them leading the state Senate; three daughters of Bay Area immigrants hold statewide constitutional offices; California has had two women serving simultaneously in the U.S. Senate for nearly 28 consecutive years; and, of course, a California woman is on the Democratic ticket for vice president. 

This election year, primary results and district characteristics indicate that women have opportunities to expand their numbers incrementally, particularly in the U.S. House and the state Senate.

A major factor is that organizations have emerged to recruit and train more women to run for public office, and the strategy seems to be working. There were 191 female candidates in primary elections this year for the California congressional delegation and the state Legislature – three short of the all-time record set in 1992, which saw women make significant gains in both the Legislature and Congress.

In the 2017-18 election cycle, some of the women’s successes could be traced to a #MeToo and #WeSaidEnough reckoning that saw a number of male legislators resign their legislative seats amid claims of sexual harassment. Women won most of the ensuing special elections.  

But as women try to increase their numbers this year and inch toward gender parity, their path may be complicated by the fact that Democratic women are doing well but Republican women need to catch up.  Only six Republican women currently serve in the Legislature, and not a single GOP woman is in the state’s House delegation. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 2,144 women are now serving in the 50 state legislatures, and more than 68% are Democrats. In fact, even as the number of women in Congress skyrocketed to a new record two years ago, the number of Republican representatives declined. U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, says, “I know that we have to up our game on the Republican end.” 

Research shows that voters put a candidate’s party ahead of gender in making their choices. A key Republican consultant in the state Senate sizes up the situation this way: “This year we’re seeing more of a philosophical election than a gender election.”  Nowhere is that more evident than in the 29th Senate District, which spans much of Orange County and includes slivers of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. 

If women are to make gains in the Senate, it will be important for Republican Ling Ling Chang to retain her seat in a tough battle against Democrat Josh Newman. Newman narrowly defeated her in 2016 and then was recalled from office two years later for his vote in support of a gas tax increase. He was replaced by Chang as the #MeToo movement was picking up steam. She may have been helped by the focus on women that year, but this time she may be burdened by the focus on President Donald Trump.

Chang is considered the most moderate Republican in the state Senate, and she has publicly stated that she didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. “Trump’s comments (about women) are disgusting, offensive and an embarrassment to the Republican Party,” she said shortly before the election.  Nonetheless, four years later, Newman is running a blistering ad on cable and digital platforms that ties Chang to Trump. 

Although Chang touts her support of COVID-19 relief on her Senate website, the ad harshly criticizes her pandemic response and veracity. “She failed us… just like Trump,” the ad declares.

Four years ago, Chang’s once reliably conservative district gave Hillary Clinton a lopsided 17 percentage point victory, and Orange County supported a Democrat for president for the first time since 1936. In the primary last March, Chang was the top vote-getter among three candidates, but her two Democratic foes combined to collect slightly more than half the total votes. Are voters ready to forgive Newman for his gas tax vote? Will anti-Trump sentiment percolate into down-ballot races and cost Republicans coast-to-coast?

The answers could help determine if California women continue their upward trajectory in electoral politics.

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Steve Swatt and Susie Swatt have also written about the potential for women gaining ground in this election year and the women behind California’s landmark vehicle emissions law.

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