In 2018, Pennsylvania women are remixing 1992

Pennsylvania is finally poised to end its drought of women's congressional representation by January 2019: Tuesday's ...

Posted: May 17, 2018 7:29 AM
Updated: May 17, 2018 7:29 AM

Pennsylvania is finally poised to end its drought of women's congressional representation by January 2019: Tuesday's primaries elevated eight women as nominees for the US House in November. Among them are four women -- all Democrats -- running in districts favorable to their party. Perhaps most important, those districts constitute four of seven open seats in Pennsylvania's House races, and most of those seats are open as a result of the political shakeup created by the drawing of new electoral maps this year.

By way of comparison, a total of seven open seats in US House races were contested in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2016. This year, seven seats are up for grabs in a single election cycle.

As in many other states across the country, Pennsylvania fielded a record number of female candidates for the US House this year, many of whom were energized to run to hold the line against the policies and politics of the current President. The likely expansion of women's representation in Pennsylvania shows a path to electoral success that may be hard to replicate nationwide in 2018, but is still instructive as we look ahead to 2020 and -- even more so -- 2022. That path to success combines energy with opportunity.

In 1992, when women nearly doubled their numbers in the US Congress, many women decided to run because they were frustrated with Washington's policies and politics -- including those who appeared to negatively affect or ignore women. In addition, watching Anita Hill testify at the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas starkly underscored the dearth of women in Congress and its impact on debates and decision-making. Female candidates channeled that energy effectively into a successful electoral strategy because 1992 also had an unusually high number of open seats in both the House and Senate. In a post-redistricting year, new district lines contributed to this rare level of opportunity.

As in 1992, women today are harnessing their political frustrations on the campaign trail. For example, when asked what made her run this year, the 6th District Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania, Chrissy Houlahan, explained, "I could not stand by and watch President Trump misrepresent our values while Congress stood aside." Mary Gay Scanlon, the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District, described her priority as "stopping the Trump agenda and its attack on our American values." But Scanlon also added that Pennsylvania's off-cycle redistricting created an opening for her to do this work as a member of Congress. Another candidate -- Shira Goodman -- told Philadelphia Magazine, "When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the gerrymandered congressional maps, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take the next step in public service."

While the redrawing of Pennsylvania's district lines was not universally advantageous to women, it helped boost the competitiveness of women like Houlahan -- who had already made the decision to run. For other women, like state Rep. Madeleine Dean, the new map incentivized them to throw their hats in the ring. Dean, who won the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District, called the creation of the new 4th District a "once in a lifetime opportunity to serve," and one that she could not pass up. For Dean, enthusiasm to make policy change met the opportunity of a winnable congressional seat. That may prove to be a formula for her success in November.

Nationwide, the number of open and/or competitive seats in 2018 appears to be inching up day by day. This may bode well for political newcomers, women included. But as we saw in last week's congressional primaries, women's energy is not combined with the same degree of political opportunity in all states this cycle. In states where a political shakeup is less likely this year, women's political energy must be sustained in the longer term so that when new lines are drawn and political opportunities arise, women are poised to take advantage of them.

That's what happened in Pennsylvania.

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