AUSTIN — Women are underrepresented in U.S. politics based on their population numbers, but the current upsurge in candidates who are women could move the needle in Texas.
Nowhere is the uptick in participation clearer than the race for U.S. Congress, where 53 Texas women have filed for seats this year, up from 35 women in 2012, which was the last time there were eight open seats in the congressional race.
“It’s primarily among Democratic women,” that the increase is evident, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Women are more likely to identify as Democrats; the pool is smaller on the Republican side.”
But, Tammy Blair, who chairs the Cherokee County GOP, said that women “make up half of the population and at some point we’re going to be heard,” party affiliation notwithstanding.
Angela Paxton of Collin County is running to claim the GOP nomination in the race for Texas’ sole state Senate seat.
“Women have always been a lynchpin of the Republican party and remain so this election cycle,” an emailed statement from her campaign said. “Angela’s key issues include ending illegal immigration, securing the border, defending Texas against an overreaching federal government, enforcing the ban on sanctuary cities, defending life and reducing our property tax burden.”
Paxton’s emphasis on issues such as immigration and taxes reflects what Dittmar said is the GOP’s reluctance to “play identity politics.”
But Lillian Salerno, one of 38 Democratic women vying for the party’s nomination in a 2018 congressional race in Texas, is willing to talk about how being a woman informs her candidacy.
Salerno, an attorney and former deputy undersecretary for rural development, is running to become the Democratic opponent against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.
Competing in what she called a heavily gerrymandered district, Salerno said “it takes a village to run,” and that the village usually consists of women.
Salerno said the debate over health care was key to motivating her because the loss of coverage for many “makes me realize how important it is to have different voices,” in such discussions.
“We’ve had women who were Republican voters who find themselves without a party,” under the current administration, Salerno said. “Eighty percent of the country wants good schools, good roads; that’s my value proposition. They know I’m safe.”
Dittmar attributed the willingness of women who are Democrats to run in greater numbers than Republican women to several factors: a less-targeted effort to recruit women candidates on the part of the GOP and a sense of urgency among Democrats in the wake of the 2016 presidential win.
Nationally, in 2018 House and Senate races, women make up 23 percent of those running, up from 19 percent in 2016, Dittmar said.
In statewide races, Joi Chevalier is running to become of the handful of Texas women who have held statewide elective jobs.
Chevalier, campaigning for the Democratic nomination to be state comptroller, said that the controversy surrounding funding for Texas’s Children’s Health Insurance Program last year motivated her to run.
Decisions on issues such as reproductive health — “things women care about” she said — are also key.
Chevalier said she sees ambivalence among Republican women, but said she sees acknowledgment that for many, “they’ve just realized that nobody is going to tell their story but women.”
As for Blair, she’s not certain what to attribute the higher number of women in Texas campaigns this year to.
“But I can tell you it was bound to happen,” she said. “Women are willing to do what we need to do when we need to do it.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.