Will surge in women running for office lead to big victories in November?

Wikimedia Commons; By Rhododendrites

When it was all over in the primary election that edged out Gwen Graham – the only female on the ballot for governor — advocates for women candidates sat around talking about the reasons for the loss.

“Is it a women thing? Is it a South Florida thing? (Graham lost big in Broward and Miami-Dade),” said Pamela Goodman, head of Ruth’s List Florida, which recruits and helps progressive women run for office.

Was it the avalanche of negative ads from a primary opponent?

Whatever the reasons, Graham’s loss last week shows that the dynamics of political races are complex, and gender is only one part of the equation when it comes to who is electable and who isn’t, experts say. Women candidates competing in the November election will face myriad factors that could lead to a win or a loss.

For example, “Younger voters are not drawn to the argument that you should vote for me just because I will be the first woman” in a particular office,” said Susan MacManus, a retired University of South Florida professor who recently analyzed more than 120 female legislative candidates competing in primary and general election races in Florida.

There’s been a surge in women running for legislative seats this year, particularly Democratic women, the MacManus analysis shows, and she predicts that “many are expecting more women to be elected to the Florida Legislature.”

At the same time, MacManus notes, “the odds of a sharp increase are somewhat lessened by the number running against each other, especially in party primaries, and running against incumbents.”

Because women are running against other women in some races, the election may not markedly change the gender makeup in the House or Senate. Women defeating incumbent men could help reduce the male majority in the chambers.

Women candidates across Florida say they’re determined to increase women’s roles in government, from state Cabinet positions and House and Senate seats to local boards in cities and counties.

Goodman from Ruth’s List Florida said she’s not discouraged following Graham’s loss because of the victories by other women candidates.

“We had 37 (Democratic progressive women on the ballot in the August 28th primary), Goodman said, noting they were “from all geographic areas around the state and all levels of races … from school boards, city and county commissions, House and Senate races and, of course, Cabinet races. Out of those 37 women, we only had nine losses — 28 of them went on to the general election.”

Women also won statewide primary elections for two influential Florida Cabinet posts last week:

Nikki Fried won the Democratic primary for Commissioner of Agriculture, and Ashley Moody won the Republican primary for Florida Attorney General. They’ll both take on men in the general election Nov. 6.

Fried said the Agriculture Commissioner post has long been considered part of a “good old boy network,” but “that’s not where the rest of the state is,” she said. “I think the rest of the state understands that this position is so much larger than just agriculture.

The agency covers a wide range of services that includes food safety, public school meals; managing millions of acres of state forest lands and controlling wildfires; protecting livestock and crop plants; and safeguarding consumers.

Fried said when talking to women, she feels a sense of excitement that she could become the first elected Agriculture Commissioner in Florida. (An appointed female Agriculture Commissioner briefly served in 2001.)

Fried also said she’s very excited to run against her male opponent, Republican state lawmaker and Agriculture Commissioner nominee Matt Caldwell.

“There will be a huge difference in my view on how the world should look,” Fried said. “I think people are going to start seeing strong women and the changes we can make in society.”

Moody, the Republican nominee for Attorney General, was unavailable to comment to the Phoenix, but after her primary win, she told supporters she’s looking forward to succeeding Florida’s current Attorney General Pam Bondi— if she wins in November, according to WFSU News.

“Many of you have heard me say this before: I have very, very, high, high heels to fill,” Moody said on primary night. “…I will work every day to deserve the great honor (Bondi) has given me with her endorsement.”

Moody will face off with Florida State Rep. Sean Shaw, the Democratic nominee and the son of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw Jr.

As to the governor’s mansion, Graham lost in the primary in favor of a young, black progressive male, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Graham got help from numerous organizations, including the political action committee EMILY’s List, which contributed more than $1.5-million to Graham’s campaign, state records show.

EMILY’s List has a track record of helping elect pro-choice Democratic women — but it doesn’t always succeed.

“Gwen Graham ran a strong and historic campaign in a state that has never elected a woman governor – all while millions of dollars were spent against her,” EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock said in a statement to the Phoenix. “EMILY’s List’s work is so critical because making history and electing women to roles of executive leadership is still hard work.

Schriock also congratulated Gillum – who on Monday won the endorsement of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women. Gillum is now considering his running mates, with Graham in the mix among the male Democratic gubernatorial candidates who competed in the primary.

Outside Florida, women in 14 states won governor’s races in primaries – exceeding the record of 10 primary wins in 1994, according to the New Jersey-based Center for American Women and Politics. And the number of women candidates who filed for governor nearly doubled compared to 1994.

The analysis by retired professor MacManus and her colleagues raises several questions as candidates move into the general election:

“Will 2018 will turn out to be a year when female challengers do better against incumbents than is traditionally the case?

Will female voter turnout escalate with more women running?

Do the campaign strategies of women running against other women differ from those running against only men?

Will gender be an effective voting cue for these legislative races that generate less interest than the top-of-the-ballot races (governor, Congress)?

Will unsuccessful female candidates, especially first-time candidates, choose to run again?”

MacManus said to expect another analysis to answer those questions after the Nov. 6 General Election.

In Gainesville, one woman candidate, physician Kayser Enneking, won the Democratic primary for state Senate District 8. She’s won support from EMILY’s List and Ruth’s List Florida. Now, she’s focusing on defeating male incumbent Keith Perry, a Republican, in the general election.

“I know who I’m running against and I know why I’m running. Bring it on,” Enneking said.

“It is an incredibly important race,” she said. Enneking is campaigning on expanding Medicaid for the disadvantaged and lowering health premiums for families, among other initiatives.

Enneking said she’s had to deal with gender issues “for the vast majority of my life.”

“I’m not afraid of Keith Perry,” she said. “I’m not afraid to be in this race.”

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.


  1. I find it interesting to hear the different thoughts/theories for Graham’s loss to Gillum. I had the opportunity to attend the gubernatorial candidates debate in Ft. Myers and came away actually most impressed with the ideas, positions of Mr. Gillum and C. King, but leaned to Gillum for his experience, pragmatism, and what I felt about his potential appeal to younger voters. I am a woman and would certainly have voted for Graham if I felt she was the best in the field of candidates but not solely because she is a woman. Perhaps other women think and feel the same.


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