These Candidates are Proof: Investing in Women Who Run for State and Local Office Pays Off

Many feminists celebrated the incredible progress made in 2018 when more women were elected to Congress than ever before—but victories at the state level warranted commemoration, too.

In the days following the 2018 election, more than 2,000 women were sworn into America’s state legislatures. Those gains are pivotal in a political landscape where, in state legislatures nationwide, we continue to see attacks on women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. 

State and local office has long been considered a launchpad for women to seek higher office: Senator Mazie Hirono started her political career in the Hawaii State House, and Senator Dianne Feinstein served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

At Emerge, we have long understood that state and local offices function as the first line of defense against harmful policies that threaten to dismantle our country’s progress. When about half of Congress has come through state legislative positions, it only makes sense that we help more women run at the state level.

That’s why it’s critical that we make them a top priority.

(DC Women’s March / Wikimedia Commons )

The history of this moment demonstrates the importance of making a long-term investment in recruiting and training more Democratic women to run at the state and local level.

In 2017, for example, Emerge alumnae helped to usher in a wave of victories for women candidates in Virginia—where a record 43 Democratic women were on the ballot, including 30 of the 54 Democratic challengers who ran in Republican-held districts and 11 who, along with four male candidates, succeeded in flipping 15 seats. After elected, these women played key roles in the efforts to get Medicaid expansion passed, and as a result, more than 400,000 low-income residents in the state received coverage.

More than 50 Emerge alumnae are on the ballot for state office this year in Virginia, including 32 who are running for state legislative seats. Candidates like Sheila Bynum-Coleman, an alumna of the Emerge training program, are challenging entrenched Republican incumbents and gaining significant traction; Shelly Simonds, another Emerge alumna, lost by a single vote in 2017 and has now made an astounding comeback and outraised her opponent.

These candidates are mobilizing Democrats who previously skipped voting in state elections and propelled Democrats to outraise Republican House candidates by almost a million dollars. Their success is an example of women’s political prowess and how indispensable they are to the Party’s electoral strategy down-ballot.

The stakes right now could not be higher for women across party and state lines. Earlier this year, we witnessed coordinated attacks on women’s reproductive rights in state legislatures across the South and Midwest. While alarming, this was also a clear call to action. These legislatures are dominated by Republican men. In fact, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics, 70 percent of all state legislators nationwide are men, which means that much of the policy that originates in these chambers is created without the perspective of women. 

That is unacceptable, and women know it—which is why more and more of us are stepping up to run. Research has shown that when women are in office, they are both effective and efficient policymakers. There is hard evidence showing that women in Congress pass twice as many bills as their male counterparts. The data also demonstrate that women legislators bring more money into their districts, are more inclined to reach across the aisle to broker compromises and introduce more bills that tackle the issues directly impacting women, children and families.

In other words: Women get the job done.

In Nevada, where Emerge alumnae helped pave the way for the first majority-woman state legislature in the country, Democratic women introduced and passed legislation to address the issues that are central to women’s lives, such as domestic violence and pay equity. In Colorado, where the House is also majority-woman, legislators like State Senator Faith Winter are leading the charge to advance paid family leave legislation.

If we want to see substantive and meaningful change in who leads at the national level, whether in Congress or in the White House, recruiting and training women for these seats should be a key part of the Democratic Party’s strategy. Women are effective and passionate advocates, and having their voices at the table makes a huge difference

State and local offices shape the entire landscape of this country. They should not be taken for granted, and neither should the women hoping to hold them. The fight for progress happens at every level of government. Investing in women candidates—from the ground up and down the ballot—is how we will win.


A’shanti Gholar is the first Black woman president of Emerge, the nation’s premier organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.