WASHINGTON — More women from across the nation are running for Congress this year than ever before, and Kansas is leading the way in making history on the ballot.
For the first time ever, there will be a female candidate in each of Kansas’ U.S. House and Senate races in November. All of the Democratic contenders are women. And one Republican woman candidate will challenge Rep. Sharice Davids to represent the Kansas City suburbs.
The Kansans are among a record-breaking number of women making bids for Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
And with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s choice of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, there will be another historic female candidate at the top of the ballot — the first Black woman and first Asian American to run for vice president on a major party ticket.
“In 2020, we’re surpassing the records of just two years ago, an encouraging sign that we could be entering a new era of women’s political participation,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women in American Politics at Rutgers. “But electoral progress for women should be the norm, not the exception, in a political system where women remain significantly underrepresented as officeholders.”
Women hold fewer than a quarter of seats in Congress, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads the House. In the Kansas Legislature, women hold 26% of the seats.
Democratic women came out in record numbers to run for office after the election of President Donald Trump. That tide of newly elected female Democratic representatives helped to flip control of the House in 2018, leading some to call it “the second year of the woman.”
For this year’s general election, even more women have launched campaigns. A record 261 women have secured nominations for U.S. House seats in the 2020 election — 78 Republicans and 183 Democrats. Eight states have not yet had their primaries, so the number could rise.
A suffragist history
Although deep-red Kansas is considered a conservative state, it has a long history of supporting women’s voting rights and historic elections for women. Kansas was the eighth state to provide voting rights to women, the first to elect a woman mayor, and the first to elect a female U.S. senator in her own right, Republican Sen. Nancy Kassaubaum in 1978.
And in its early days, Kansas — established as a free state — was thought of as a progressive stronghold that would support women’s right to vote.
“It was a state of abolitionists fighting against slavery, and those abolitionists, men and women, came here, and once they succeeded in making Kansas a free state, a lot of women turned their attention to suffrage,” said Mary Madden, director of the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka.
The museum has an exhibit on the women’s suffrage movement that was scheduled to open in March before the museum had to close its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It hopes to allow visitors again in September.
National leaders for women’s suffrage chose Kansas as their first battleground in the fight for women’s right to vote. A booklet distributed in 1867 heralded their campaign with this verse on the cover: “Kansas will win the world’s applause / As the sole champion of Woman’s cause / So light the bonfires! Have the flag unfurled / To the Banner State of all the world.”
The first resolution in the nation in favor of suffrage for women and Black men was introduced in Kansas in 1867 but ultimately failed. Kansans approved a state constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote in 1912 — eight years before the United States approved the 19th amendment.
‘This is still Kansas’
One hundred years later, women are voting and running for office in record numbers across the United States. In total, 583 women filed to run as major-party candidates for primaries for U.S. House seats this year — 227 of them Republican and 356 Democrats.
But while more women of both parties are making bids, Democratic women have been generally more successful in winning their nominations — a trend reflected in Kansas.
“Historically, Kansas and other states in the Great Plains and the West have been friendlier to electing women throughout the 20th century, for sure. But that is changing somewhat, and it is really driven by party,” said Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas who studies voting behavior.
“In the last 20 years,” he said, “Democratic women are winning Democratic primaries more than ever before and Republican women are getting less successful over time at winning Republican primaries.”
Of the six women who won their congressional primaries in Kansas in 2020, five are Democrats. And in the predominantly GOP state, most of the Democratic women on the ballot face an uphill battle.
“Academic studies show that when women run for office they win just as often as men do,” said Alexandra Middlewood, an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University. “But this is still Kansas, and Democratic candidates are going to struggle in most of our congressional districts.”
In 2016, Trump won all but two counties in Kansas and 56% of the vote. Hillary Clinton won 35.7%.
But Gov. Laura Kelly recently proved that Democratic women can win in the state. She did so largely through strong Democratic turnout in Kansas’ five most populated counties and some crossover Republican votes.
Vicki Hiatt, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said more women have been eager to run for office on the heels of Kelly’s victory and Davids’ success in flipping the Kansas City suburbs for Democrats in 2018.
“I think women in our state have started to see the fact that they could run and could win,” Hiatt said in an interview. “Women have just been stepping up, so it was not a hard recruiting task.”
Kansas Republican Party chairman Mike Kuckelman said he made it one of his goals to recruit more Republicans to run for office and “to reach out specially to people of color, women, and the Hispanic/Latino communities.”
In the 3rd District, three women competed in the Republican primary, along with two men. Amanda Adkins, a businesswoman from Overland Park and former chairwoman of the Kansas Republican Party, won the primary and will attempt to unseat Davids. The contest is rated “lean Democratic” by Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election analysis newsletter.
The other competitive House race is expected in the 2nd District, which includes Topeka and much of the eastern part of the state.
Michelle De La Isla, the first Latina to serve as mayor of Topeka, will face Republican Jake LaTurner, who is from southeast Kansas. LaTurner defeated incumbent Rep. Steve Watkins in the primary, after Watkins was charged with felonies related to voter fraud. Cook Political Report ranks the contest as “likely Republican,” but recent polls have put the two candidates within a margin of error.
The highest-profile female candidate in Kansas is Barbara Bollier, of Mission Hills, who is seeking to become the first Democratic U.S. senator from the state since 1933. The race has gained national attention as Bollier, a former Republican state senator who switched parties after the election of Trump, has proven herself a powerful fundraiser and formidable candidate.
She will face U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who has played up his bonafides as a Trump supporter. The race is ranked “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report.
A new poll, released Wednesday, showed Marshall and Bollier in a dead heat. Marshall was two points ahead in the survey of 1,200 likely voters, but within the margin of error of the poll. SurveyUSA, a nationally recognized polling house, conducted the survey after a group of election enthusiasts on Twitter crowd-funded the polling effort.
The other two congressional races are rated as “solid Republican” by Cook Political Report with slim chances for the Democratic women challengers. Democrat Kali Barnett, a music teacher from Garden City, will face Republican candidate Tracey Mann, of Salina, a former lieutenant governor, in western Kansas’ large, rural 1st District. The heavily GOP district has only once sent a Democrat to Congress.
In the 4th District, which includes Wichita and south-central Kansas, Democrat Laura Lombard of Wichita, a 36-year-old business development consultant, will challenge incumbent Republican Ron Estes.
This story has been updated to correct Mary Madden’s name.