By Cheryl Slocum
Alabama, not unlike the rest of the country, had a wave of women on the ballot in this year’s primary election and in Tuesday’s general election.
Eighty-three Republican and Democratic women and two independent women ran for state office, including offices elected statewide and circuit judgeships. Forty-four of those women won their races.
In all, Alabama added six women to the count of state offices and circuit judgeships held by women. Three of those seats are circuit judgeships; two are seats in the House of Representatives and one is on the Alabama Board of Education.
Republican women fared well Tuesday. Of the 23 women who ran for those offices, 20, or 87 percent, won. Fourteen of the races were uncontested and six women defeated opponents.
Terry Lathan, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Gov. Kay Ivey’s win was an important factor that will help contribute to more women running for office.
“With Governor Ivey breaking the glass ceiling as the first elected GOP female Alabama governor,” Lathan said in statement, “we will continue to recruit and expand our base of women candidates.”
For Democratic women, who made up 71 percent of all the women who ran, the outcomes looked different. Sixty Democratic women ran; 18 of them were in uncontested races and six others scored victories against their opponents. The remaining 35 lost their races. In all, 42 percent of Democratic female candidates won their races.
Stacy Propst is executive director of Emerge Alabama, an organization that helps prepare women with little or no political experience to run for office. She said that, despite the losses, several of the 19 women her group trained and who ran in races across the state have reached out to her to talk about future plans.
“If anything, the women are more passionate about what we’re doing next and a lot of these women will run again. I have no doubt about that.” Propst said.
Propst said this election experience will inform next efforts. “You can’t explain what it’s like to run in an actual campaign here until you actually do it,” she said, “Now that we’ve done it, we understand the difficulties that we’re facing.”
Propst pointed to what she called structural and systemic barriers to getting women elected.
“We calculated the difference between fundraising for Democratic men and women and found that the male candidates outpaced female candidates, raising $24 to every $1 that women raised.”
Propst also said local and state-level media attention fell short for female candidates.
“We have received a lot of great national media attention, but our local media outlets are seemingly only interested in the white men who are running for office,” she said.
Democratic party leadership had a different take on the first-time female candidates’ performance at the polls. Pointing to inexperience as a factor, Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said, “There were some bright spots overall, but we had a lot of women candidates who were running their first race and many of them had gone to a so-called training session about running for office. But until you have actually worked on a campaign, you really don’t understand politics.”
Worley said, “I think their expectations were far outside the boundaries of reality.”
However, she said that the learning curve on running a good campaign was improved for some of the first-time female candidates. “The good thing about this is we have a lot of good people who participated and who learned, Worley said, “and I think there are lot of them who will participate again. I think if they use this as a learning experience and handle their defeats with grace and dignity, then I think they have a bright future ahead of them.”
Worley said she thought the average first-time female candidate had naive expectations.
“Most of these women had probably actively participated in their first campaign by canvassing for Doug Jones or actually doing a phone bank and because that translated into a win, they believed that the exact same thing would happen if they just put their name on the ballot as a Democrat, then money would just start flowing from the national party or the state party or somewhere,” said Worley.
Worley said she that felt some of the candidates should run again. “If someone got 40 percent of the vote, especially because there was so much straight-party voting, they are very, very viable for the future.” Worley said.
Worley’s advice for future first-time candidates is to begin well in advance in developing a voter base. “You need to start with a base, not try to build one while you’re campaigning,” Worley said.
Kari Powell, who ran for a seat on the Public Service Commission, said that, statistically, she knew her run was a long shot and that Alabama hadn’t voted Democratic in several election cycles. But she said she still thought that the Democratic ticket was strong and that there might be a chance of winning her race. She got 39.85 percent of the vote in her race.
Powell said that, in a conversation with her fellow Public Service Commission candidate, Cara McClure, she realized that campaign efforts might have been more successful had they expanded their efforts to reach non-Democratic voters.
“I agree with what Cara said. We relied on getting the Democratic base out.” said Powell, “We focused on getting their vote, but we didn’t focus on the Republicans, but I wish we would have spent more time trying.”
Powell didn’t think that the disparity of funding between male and female Democratic candidates played a role in her and other women candidates’ ability to get elected. Powell pointed out that, despite different funding levels among Democratic candidates, male or female, percentages of votes were about the same. “Walt Maddox has so much more money compared to us and still didn’t do that much better, said Powell. Maddox got 40.36 percent of the vote in his race for governor.
“Our (Public Service Commission) opponents spent most of their money in the primaries,” Powell said. “They didn’t go on the campaign trail, I never met my opponent.”
Powell said that, despite the sacrifices, running for office was well worth it. Powell said she was proud that she was able to inform people about the role of the Public Service Commission and how it affected them.
“I think we started a conversation,” Powell said, “and it was important to get the word out there. I am hopeful that the seeds that we planted will somehow lead to change. We did reach a lot of people.”
Powell said she and some of her fellow female candidates plan to connect in the near future to talk about what they could do better and to develop strategies that might make sense for future efforts.
“There’s a hunger for change that’s out there, so we just have to keep working,” said Powell. “Whether I run again or not, I intend to stay engaged in the political process because it is so important.”