'The Year of the Woman' in Arkansas (Heather Yates On Politics)

by Heather E. Yates  on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2018 11:08 am   3 min read

Some of the women seeking elected office in Arkansas this year. Nationally, 185 women are running for Congress, which surpasses records set in 1992 and 2016.

This is a record-breaking year for women in politics. As the summer draws to a close, so does the primary season. Heading into the general election, there are 185 women running for Congress. This number surpasses the records set in 1992 and 2016. 

There is a lot attention focused on national trends and high profile congressional contests, and they are important. But I want to explain how women candidates are making a difference in Arkansas this year.

The Decision to Run

Women are motivated to run for office for various reasons. This year's increased number of women on the ballot is likely a response to the surprising results of the 2016 presidential election. 

Some women point to the election of Donald Trump as their motivation; others say it was the disappointing loss of Hillary Clinton. For other women, a concern about particular issues like health care or education, which hit particularly close to home in Arkansas, inspire candidacy. Whatever the reasons, one thing is for certain: more women are running for public office this fall. 

Women Are No Strangers to Politics in Arkansas

Arkansas has some of its own history to contribute to this year’s record-breaking number of women candidates. It is a history flecked with women serving in politics, especially in Congress. 

At one point, Arkansas had six congressional districts instead of the current four, and a third of its congressional delegation were women. In 1930, Pearl Oldfield (AR-2) and Effiegene Wingo (AR-6) served together for a year in the U.S. House before Oldfield retired from office in 1931. More recently, Blanche Lincoln (AR-1) served Arkansas in the U.S. House until 2011, when she lost re-election. 

Since then, no woman has served in the Arkansas congressional delegation, but Hayden Shamel would like to change that. 

Making her contribution to the national trend, Shamel, a Democrat, is challenging Republican incumbent Bruce Westerman in the 4th Congressional District. The Washington Post's campaign analysis does not favor Shamel to win — the district is solidly Republican. But while many women running for office this year have tough campaigns and may not be competitive, that doesn’t make them any less important. Substantively, Shamel's campaign may not appear competitive to national analysts, but descriptively, her candidacy is meaningful to the party apparatus in Arkansas.

More Women Running for State Legislature

Lets look at how the national trend is resonating in the down-ballot races in Arkansas. 

Compared to 2016, more women are running this year for the state Legislature. In the last election, 23 women were on the ballot for the state House and only two women ran for the state Senate. Compare those figures to this year’s numbers: 31 women running for the House, eight for Senate. 

The increase in women running for the state Senate is important to note for several reasons. The national trend shows that women have set a record in House races, but have not faired as well in Senate contests. This is likely a function of the Senate's staggered elections, having only one third of its seats up for election every cycle. Arkansas imitates the staggered elections cycle in the state Senate, therefore, only one third of its seats are up for election, making the increased number of women on the ballot consequential. 

At first, the rise from two to eight candidates may not seem noteworthy, but descriptively it's significant. Consider this: if all eight women are elected, that means nearly a quarter of the Arkansas Senate will be female, and the implications for public policy are not trivial. 

More Women Candidates Benefit State Party Committees

The 2018 midterm election is just as much about political parties as it is gender. 

The upswing in women candidates demonstrates heightened electoral enthusiasm, and that's important to party building activities on the state level. Party competitiveness is quantified by the ability to fundraise and recruit candidates. Vibrant parties are defined by competitive elections, and party committees struggle to be competitive if they cannot recruit candidates. 

More women candidates this year in Arkansas may bode well for the state party committees because many nominees are first-time candidates, which can generate more people, resources, and a deeper bench of candidates from which to recruit future candidates. 

The Arkansas Democratic Party stands to benefit the most from the increased number of women running for office in 2018. Something to remember this fall is that when women run, they often win, and so too will the state party committees. 

Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of "The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices," which is available at Palgrave and Amazon.



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