A record number of women are running for office this year, building off the success they had in 2018. To illustrate just how historic Election Day could be, we spotlight five women running for office for the first time ever.
Less than two years ago, Candace Valenzuela was a relative stranger to the world of national politics. In 2017, the Texas native ran for and won a seat on the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board. She told Texas Monthly she felt drawn to becoming more politically engaged after Donald Trump was elected to the White House.
Now, Valenzuela is running for Congress—and the nation is watching to see if she can flip a longtime Republican congressional seat blue. The Cook Political Report has rated Texas’ 24th District a toss-up.
If Valenzuela wins, she would become the first Afro-Latina elected to Congress.
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A record number of women are running for Congress this year, building off the success they had in 2018. According to data tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, 298 women are running for a seat in the House, compared to the record of 234 set two years ago. Women of color in particular are having their moment: On Tuesday, the names of at least 115 women of color—which includes a historic 61 Black women, 32 Latinas, and six Native Americans—will appear on ballots across the country.
CAWP Director Debbie Walsh, however, points out that the country has a long way to go to reach gender equality in politics. Despite making up over half of the US population, she told COURIER, “women still are less than a quarter of all of the members of Congress.”
At the state level, only nine out of 50 governors are women (a record that has never been broken), and only 29% of members of state legislatures are women, Walsh said. Unsurprisingly, she added, there’s a major partisan disparity within these statistics: “On the Democratic side, women are doing much better at getting elected, largely because … more of them are running.”
Why the Surge of Women Candidates Is Significant
Beyond the obvious issue of fairness, there are many reasons why it’s important to elect more women into office. For example, Walsh explained, they are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women, families, and children. They also tend to be more passionate about issues like health care, child care, and education—no matter what political party they belong to.
Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, who was elected in 2018 and flipped her district’s seat blue, is a prime example of this trend: She quickly took action and co-founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House to address racial disparities in maternal health care for Black women.
This example also illustrates the tendency Democratic female politicians have, as Walsh noted, to “feel a responsibility to represent folks that don’t normally have a seat at the table.”
As Valenzuela told COURIER about why she’s running for office: “In Washington, I’m going to fight to make sure the priorities of Congress reflect the priorities of working families in this community. I know the urgency of these families’ struggles because I’ve lived them.”
Women are also better at bipartisan cooperation. “We have evidence that women are more likely to work across the aisle, and at least have relationships with each other,” Walsh explained, noting that women in the Senate were more likely to cross party lines to have dinner with one another—though that’s become rarer in the current political climate.
Nonetheless, Walsh continued, this very politically polarized climate—stoked largely by the election of Donald Trump—is one of the reasons why a historic number of women have run for office in 2018 and again in 2020. “They thought someone who would talk about women the way Donald Trump talked about women in that Access Hollywood tape could not get elected president of the United States,” Walsh said. “And then when he did, and when he beat a [highly qualified] woman … women had to reassess things that they thought were settled business.”
When paired with the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017—which has implicated dozens of high-profile, powerful men, including politicians—it’s hardly surprising that many women no longer trust male politicians to represent their interests. So they’ve decided to step up and represent themselves. This is likely why we saw a record number of women with diverse ideological perspectives run for president in 2020.
They saw that they could no longer sit on the sidelines, but instead had to step up.
To illustrate just how historic Election Day could be, COURIER spotlights five women running for office for the first time ever.
Candidate: Candace Valenzuela
Running for: Congressional District 24 in Texas
The daughter of a Mexican-American mother and Black father, Valenzuela is an educator who calls Dallas home with her husband and two kids.
“I’m running for Congress because the opportunities that allowed me to go from being homeless as a kid, sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station, to become the first in my family to go to college, should be available to everyone,” she told COURIER.
Valenzuela’s pitch to voters is that she knows what it’s like to walk in their shoes: Economic insecurity plagued her early life, and she’s worked low-wage jobs. She understands the importance of affordable health care because she has a pre-existing condition. She’s also a big advocate for education, as well as other family-related issues, such as affordable housing, income inequality, reproductive rights, and health care.
Valenzuela’s identity and personal background are evidence of a demographic shift in suburban districts like the 24th. “We need to make our Texas delegation look more like the Texans they’re designed to serve,” she told the Texas Tribune.
Candidate: Sarah McBride
Running for: Delaware State Senate
A native of Wilmington, Delaware, where she still lives, Sarah McBride is running for the state’s First Senate District. Although she’s only just turned 30, she’s been involved in progressive politics for years, and has worked for former Gov. Jack Markell and interned at the White House under Barack Obama. McBride made history in 2016 by becoming the first transgender person to speak at a major party convention.
McBride has long been an advocate for LGBTQ rights: She helped get gender identity nondiscrimination protections signed into Delaware state law and currently works as the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. However, McBride’s campaign hasn’t focused on trans rights—she’s pushing a wider progressive agenda. She’s particularly passionate about expanding healthcare access and reducing costs, as she lost her husband to cancer in 2014. She also supports expanding paid leave, additional funding for public education and early childhood education, criminal justice reform, and gun control.
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If elected, which is widely expected, McBride would become the country’s first transgender state senator and the highest-ranking transgender politican.
When she won her primary in September, she told the New York Times: “My hope is that this result can help reinforce for a young kid trying to find their place in this world, here in Delaware or anywhere else in this country, that this democracy is big enough for them, too.”
Candidate: Desiree Tims
Running for: Ohio’s 10th Congressional District
Days after a mass shooting hit too close to home in Dayton, Desiree Tims announced her candidacy for Ohio’s 10th District in August 2019. Nine-term incumbent Rep. Mark Turner vetoed a disaster funding bill following catastrophic tornadoes in Dayton, and Tims decided she’d had enough.
“When they talk about the Midwest and Middle America, they show this white guy with Popeye arms, like toot toot, like coal mines and steel mills,” Tims told Buzzfeed. “And I’m like, yeah, there are Black people in the steel mills. There are Black people who are coal miners.”
Recent polling data shows Tims, a Dayton native and the granddaughter of a Black sharecropper, is gaining on the longtime congressman. Although this is her first time running for office, she’s no stranger to politics. She interned in the Obama administration and worked on Capitol Hill for Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Key issues for her are affordable health care, more funding for public education, free community college, negotiating better trade agreements for American farmers, and a more equitable tax plan. But her identity as a Black woman is never far from her mind or her legislative agenda: Her car and campaign offices were vandalized multiple times after she publicized her intentions to participate in this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
If she wins her race, Tims will become the district’s first Black representative.
“The common denominator is we all want opportunity,” Tims told Buzzfeed. “We all want access to the American dream. And that is the best language that I can speak: opportunity. So people definitely are taking a look—Can this little Black girl from West Dayton do it? And the answer is, I’ve already done it.”
Candidate: Jessica Benham
Running for: Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Pennsylvania’s 36th District, which includes parts of Pittsburgh, has been represented by one of the state’s most conservative Democrats for 24 years. Last year, autism activist and community organizer Jessica Benham decided it was time for a candidate with “truly Democratic values”— so she put her name in the hat.
“I’m running to both protect public health and fight for an economic recovery that prioritizes everyday Pennsylvanians, not huge corporations and the elite,” she told COURIER in a statement.
Like other women running for office for the first time, Benham is leaning into her personal experiences to help her gain more support among average voters. “Anytime a Pennsylvanian seeks medical care, they should pay nothing at the point of access,” Benham told the Pittsburgh City Paper last year. “For me, this issue is important, I live with a preexisting condition and I have experienced not being able to afford medical care.”
At the top of Benham’s legislative agenda would be an expansion of rights to various marginalized groups, including disabled people and the LGBTQ community. But she’s also passionate about addressing the economic inequalities that have come about during the COVID-19 pandemic, reproductive rights, and workers’ rights.
If elected, Benham would be Pennsylvania’s first openly LGBTQ and first openly autistic representative.
Candidate: Cynthia Wallace
Running for: North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District
North Carolina’s 9th District was the center of a ballot fraud scandal last year, which led to a special election that almost flipped the district blue. Now, mathematician Cynthia Wallace is working to take back the seat from Rep. Dan Bishop, the architect behind the notorious “bathroom bill” that barred transgender students from using the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. Though the district is solidly red—a victim of Republican gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement—a recent poll found Wallace trailing her opponent by only 2%.
Wallace has been employed in the financial services industry for decades, working for three fortune 500 companies. She’s more of a pragmatist than a firebrand politician, but she’s campaigned strongly on rebuilding the region’s economy and supporting local businesses, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“I’m talking about the things that are going to change people’s lives, not what’s happening in Portland,” Wallace told CNBC. “My pitch to [voters] is, you’re going to get someone that’s focused on kitchen table issues, and her No. 1 priority is your economic outcomes.”
As someone familiar with farming communities, she’s also interested in improving infrastructure, specifically the urban-rural broadband internet divide. If Wallace wins, she’ll be the first Democrat to win this seat since 1963, and thus also the first Black woman to hold the seat.