Anita Hill’s testimony in Congress triggered the first “Year of the Woman” in 1992, after she accused the Republican Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. But that wave of enthusiasm and outrage mostly elected white women.
The new allegation of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh, another Republican Supreme Court nominee, comes from a white woman. But in a rapidly diversifying America, it may help Democrats elect not only more white women, but also an unprecedented number of women of color.
Long before the clinical-psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused Kavanaugh of a high-school assault, a backlash against Donald Trump had already generated signs of intense engagement among African American women and an unusually large advantage for Democratic candidates among college-educated white women.
Now the unpredictable collision over Ford’s allegation—which could culminate in televised hearings pitting a professional woman against the all-male Republican contingent on the Senate Judiciary Committee—could provide another galvanizing moment for the female voters already inflamed against Trump and the GOP. “It just feels like it’s more fuel for the fire,” the Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says.
Democrats have positioned themselves to benefit from that energy by nominating female candidates in 183 House races, according to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. That easily outdistances the previous record of 120 in 2016, and is much more than the 70 women who ran in 1992. (Republicans have nominated just 52 women in House races this year.) According to the center’s calculations, Democrats have also set records with 15 female Senate nominees (including two challengers in Nevada and Arizona who are best positioned to win GOP-held seats) and 12 gubernatorial picks.
Many of these Democratic nominees are white professional women, from lawyers and college professors to small-business owners and military veterans. That compatible profile could help solidify the loyalty of college-educated white women already recoiling from Trump’s belligerent style and history of sexual-abuse allegations: Polls now routinely show that 60 percent or more of college-educated white women prefer Democrats for Congress, the biggest share ever by far. This movement away from the GOP is likely to systematically boost the Democrats’ big field of white-women nominees, many of whom are contesting white-collar suburban districts.
But this election could prove an even greater landmark for women of color. “I think what we’re seeing is the tipping point in the Democratic Party,” the longtime Democratic activist Aimee Allison says. “We are telling a new story to the country about women of color: We are the least represented and the most progressive, and this is our year.”
Allison founded a new organization called She the People that’s dedicated to electing more Democratic women of color. It is holding its inaugural meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, with 500 activists and candidates expected to attend. They have plenty of breakthroughs to celebrate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina, and Ayanna Pressley, who’s African American, each ousted longtime, male House incumbents in Democratic primaries earlier this year. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, running to succeed men in deep-blue seats, are on track to become the first Muslim women in Congress. Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia are favored to become the first Latinas elected to the House from Texas. Deb Haaland in New Mexico could become the lower chamber’s first Native American woman. In all, the Rutgers center calculates, women of color represent more than one-third of female House Democratic nominees.
The incumbent Mazie Hirono of Hawaii is the only nonwhite woman Democrats have nominated for a Senate seat this year. (The three other Democratic women of color in the Senate aren’t up for reelection until 2022.) But in governor’s races, the Democrats Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina, and Stacey Abrams, an African American, are highly competitive in the New Mexico and Georgia contests, respectively; Lupe Valdez, also a Latina, and Paulette Jordan, who’s Native American, face much tougher climbs in their respective races in Texas and Idaho.
Allison maintains that these minority women are not only changing the party’s look, but also its underlying strategic calculus. With Abrams as the most prominent example, many have focused less on reassuring center-right white swing voters with a moderate message and more on maximizing turnout among lower-income, younger, and minority voters. They’re promoting what Allison calls an unambiguous “social and economic racial-justice” agenda. “The Democrats now see this is a full-blown, new-American-majority playbook in action, and they are seeing we actually could win … without kowtowing to Trump voters or moderate white voters, who are not a reliable base for the party,” she argues.
In 1992, voters elected seven new women of color to the House and one to the Senate, about one-fourth of the total number of new women in each chamber. This year’s gains for minority women could be more dramatic, especially if any of the gubernatorial hopefuls succeed.
But a critical test for all of these candidates will be showing that they can carry not only safely Democratic places, like Ocasio-Cortez did, but also swing districts and purple states. If candidates of color in tough races, such as Abrams, can win, the model Allison is touting—which stresses mobilization over persuasion—will look much more promising to Democrats than if they can’t. The test will likely be whether candidates of color can craft an approach inspirational enough to mobilize more minority and youth voters without alienating too many of the white-collar whites who revile Trump but may also resist expensive liberal ideas.
That’s where the firestorm over Ford and Kavanaugh comes in. It could make that equation easier by helping Democrats in—and of—all races hold more college-educated white women. Such a shift, if combined with greater minority turnout, could be the final piece to elect more white Democratic women, as in 1992, and more women of color. And that could mean more influence than ever inside the party for minority women, just as one of their own—Senator Kamala Harris of California—eyes a bid for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
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