Women Gubernatorial Prospects Few and Far Between in 2016

If New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan runs for Senate, she'll leave behind a prized post as one of just six female governors.

Democrats have made a big show of the top-tier women they have running for Senate in 2016. In addition to incumbents running for reelection, the party can so far boast five female Senate candidates. But when it comes to electing more women to statewide office, the gubernatorial landscape for Democratic women looks pretty bleak.

And in one state, those trends are in competition: One of Democrats' three female governors, New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan, is also her party's leading contender to run for Senate in 2016.

Republicans aren't doing much better. The only credible GOP woman currently running for one of the 15 governorships on the ballot in 2015 and 2016 is Catherine Hanaway in Missouri. But for Democrats, who are facing calls for more diversity at the top levels of the party, most expect they will have to wait until 2018 to increase the small number of women in governor's offices.

New Hampshire traditionally has been a favorable climate for female candidates—in 2008, it became the first state to elect more women than men to its legislature, and it sent an all-female delegation to Congress after the 2012 election. But absent opportunities elsewhere, and with Hassan potentially not running for reelection, the number of women Democratic governors (and maybe women governors overall) could decline next year.

Two members of the New Hampshire Executive Council, Colin Van Ostern and Chris Pappas, are often mentioned as potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates, but Democratic operatives say there are also a handful of women likely to be recruited should there be an open gubernatorial seat. Possible candidates include former state House Speaker Terie Norelli, state Sen. Donna Soucy, and Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen, the daughter of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

On the Republican side, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu has already stated his interest in running regardless of what Hassan does.

EMILY's List spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said the pro-Democratic women's group is keeping a close watch on New Hampshire in 2016, but Lucinda Guinn, the group's vice president of campaigns, underscored that the biggest opportunity is really in 2018. "Beyond 2016, we anticipate that momentum continuing into 2018, where we see tremendous opportunities for strong Democratic women to run for governors' seats in states across the country," Guinn said.

Former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan expects multiple Democrats to throw their hats into the 2016 governor's race if it's an open seat. "If it's an open race, there will definitely be a primary. I have no doubt there will be a primary," Sullivan said. She praised a number of potential female candidates, but Norelli in particular. Were Norelli to run, Sullivan said, "she would instantly be a credible candidate." Norelli was not available for comment.

Nationwide, there are currently only six female governors, while 20 women hold seats in the U.S. Senate. Democrats had only one woman governor (Hassan) before the 2014 election, but Rhode Island elected Gina Raimondo and Oregon's Kate Brown took over when scandal-plagued John Kitzhaber resigned earlier this year.

Erin Souza-Rezendes, the communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, said her organization has done research on the gap between the number of women senators and governors. "Voters are still generally more comfortable with a woman in a deliberative body like the legislature, where she is one of a group of decision makers, rather than the decision maker," Souza-Rezendes said. That reality could make recruiting women to run for governor more challenging, she added, on top of the fact that there are twice as many Senate seats.

Souza-Rezendes also noted that it's easier for candidates of either gender to win open seats, and there simply aren't that all that many of them this cycle. There are currently six open gubernatorial races, in Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Vermont, and West Virginia. In that regard, 2018 will be a better year for both parties to try and expand the ranks of women or minority governors. There will be 35 seats up in that year's election, and as many as 20 of them could be open races.