Sarah Huckabee Sanders, her husband and children pose with supporters on election night Tuesday in downtown Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the history of female governors in Alabama.
WASHINGTON — The United States’ ceiling for female governors was shattered this week, with voters in 12 states electing women to the role, breaking the prior record of nine set for the first time back in 2004.
While not all of the gubernatorial campaigns have been called as of Thursday afternoon, Arizona and Oregon voters had two female candidates on their ballots, ensuring those states have elected a woman to the governor’s mansion, regardless of whether the Democrat or Republican candidate wins.
Women were also elected to lead their states in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York and South Dakota.
In total, there were 25 women running in gubernatorial races this year out of 36 total campaigns, a significant increase from the 16 female candidates who ran for governor in 2018.
Voters also elected the nation’s first openly lesbian governor in Massachusetts, though if the Democratic candidate wins in Oregon the country will get its first two openly lesbian governors. The Associated Press has not yet called the Oregon race, although the candidate, Tina Kotek, has declared victory.
Why women are breaking through
Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, said Thursday several factors led women candidates to break through the record this year.
Female governors, she said, now have a longer record of showing women can succeed in the role, helping to erode some stereotypes that have hamstrung female candidates. Voters have also begun to reevaluate what they value in a leader.
“Seeing some of the failed leadership at executive levels of men might have also helped some of these women,” Dittmar said.
The last few election cycles, Dittmar said, have set a foundation for more female candidates as voters watched them win an increasing number of high-ranking positions, like governor, leading to more “public conversations about the importance of women in leadership.”
“That helps to soften the ground for women,” she said.
Women have increasingly moved up the ranks in statehouses, boosting the pool of women well positioned to run, a place that used to be dominated by male candidates, she said.
“For the governor’s office, it’s a sole office and there’s often a line of folks who are waiting to run for that position. And that line has been made up of men,” Dittmar said. “And it’s often been informed by men. In other words, who sits at that table deciding who’s going to run next and who’s going to be backed have often been small groups of politically powerful men.”
This election year also had a lot of turnover and opportunity for female candidates, combined with the fact that several women have stepped up following scandals by male politicians over the years.
The women elected as their states’ chief executives:
- In Alabama, more than 67% of voters reelected Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who was first sworn in on April 10, 2017. Ivey, who was formerly the state’s lieutenant governor, stepped into the governorship after former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after he pleaded guilty to campaign finance law violations.
- Arizona voters haven’t yet learned whether Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs or Republican nominee Kari Lake will become their next governor. Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, held 50.3% of the vote as of Thursday midday, while Lake held 49.7%.
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former President Donald Trump’s press secretary, won her election in Arkansas with 63% of the vote, becoming that state’s first female governor. Sanders defeated Democrat Chris Jones, who received 35% of the vote.
- In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds secured reelection with 58% of the vote, handily winning out over Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear.
- Kansans reelected Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly by a narrow margin over GOP challenger Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general. Kelly received 49.2% of the vote to Schmidt’s 47.7%. Kelly said Wednesday the state had voted “for civility, for cooperation, for listening to one another and for a spirit of bipartisan problem-solving that’s become all too rare in our politics today.”
- Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills got the backing of 55% of voters for another term in the Pine Tree State, defeating Republican nominee Paul LePage, who was the state’s governor from 2011 to 2019. LePage received 43% of the vote. “Tonight the people of Maine sent a pretty clear message, a message that we will continue to move forward, not go back,” Mills said Tuesday night. “We will continue to fight problems, not one another.”
- More than 63% of Massachusetts voters elected Democrat Maura Healey as their first woman governor and one of the country’s first openly lesbian governors this week. She defeated former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who got 35% of the vote.
- Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer secured reelection to a second term over Republican challenger Tudor Dixon. Fifty-five percent of voters backed Whitmer, compared to 44% supporting Dixon. Whitmer said in her victory speech that her win “reminds us all that our governor’s office does not belong to any person or political party. It belongs to all of us, the people of Michigan.”
- In New Mexico, 52% of voters backed Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reelection, rejecting a challenge to her tenure from Republican Mark Ronchetti, who received 46% of the vote.
- New Yorkers elected Gov. Kathy Hochul as the state’s first female governor over Republican U.S. House Rep. Lee Zeldin. Hochul became the state’s current governor after she stepped up from her role as lieutenant governor following former Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo resignation in August 2021 amid multiple sexual harassment allegations. Hochul received 53% of the vote to Zeldin’s 47%.
- In Oregon, either Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate, or Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee, will become the state’s top executive, though counting continues in the especially close race. As of midday Thursday, Kotek had 46.7% of the vote to Drazan’s 43.9%.
- South Dakota voters overwhelmingly reelected Republican Gov. Kristi Noem with 65% of the vote. Democratic challenger Jamie Smith, a delegate in the state House of Representatives, received 35% of the vote.
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