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date: 26 June 2022

Why Not a Woman of Color?: The Candidacies of US Women of Color for Statewide Executive Office

Abstract and Keywords

This review seeks to broaden the study of women candidates and minority women’s candidacies, specifically by focusing on the intersection of gender and race in statewide executive officeholding. Scholarly neglect of this topic risks naturalizing the dearth of women of color in statewide executive positions, sending the message that it is understandable that women lack access to those offices and/or that such offices aren’t realistically obtainable. Using data from the Center for American Women and Politics, the article assesses the status of women of color in statewide offices, examines state and party patterns in their presence as candidates and officeholders, and suggests directions for future research. Due to the low number of women of color who have ever achieved statewide office, the article combines women across racial/ethnic backgrounds into the category “women of color” to make an analysis feasible; however, future scholars could examine differences among women.

Keywords: race, ethnicity, gender, women of color, elections, states, parties, statewide office, candidates

The presence of women of color as public officials conveys the symbolic message that women of color are suitable to rule (Mansbridge 1999; Harris-Perry 2011).1 Even as candidates, women of color disrupt societal expectations that minority politicians are male and female politicians are white (Junn 2009). The election of women of color contributes to the overall status of minority officeholders and female officeholders, and their rise can help to break down both racial and gender barriers in electoral politics (Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006). Women of color can serve as role models and mentors, helping other minority women run for office (Sanbonmatsu 2015a). And they can improve the substantive representation of underrepresented groups, thereby enhancing the legitimacy of American democracy. A growing number of studies show that officials who are women of color have a distinctive policy impact (Barrett 2001; Hawkesworth 2003; Garcia Bedolla, Tate, and Wong 2005; Orey et al. 2006; Bratton, Haynie, and Reingold 2006; Fraga et al. 2008; Garcia et al. 2008; Reingold and Smith 2012; Brown 2014b).

In this review I assess the status of women of color as candidates and officeholders at the level of statewide executive office (e.g., governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state).2 It may seem overdetermined that women of color have less access to these offices than other groups. Yet scholarly neglect of statewide executive offices can send the message that it is natural for women of color to lack such access, or that these offices are not realistically obtainable by women of color.

The challenges that minority women face in achieving elective office are many, and minority women are underrepresented in politics around the globe (Hughes 2013b). In the United States, most elected officials of color are men, while most women elected officials are white (Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006; CAWP 2014b). Minority women are disadvantaged by their location at the intersections of race, gender, and class inequalities, with implications for all aspects of political participation, including the pursuit of elective office (Prestage 1977; Carroll and Strimling 1983; Gill 1997; Collins 2000; Philpot and Walton 2007; Junn and Brown 2008; Gamble 2010).

In the United States and other nations, executive positions are typically held by men (Duerst-Lahti 2006; Jalalzai 2008). In the gender and politics literature, some evidence indicates that women candidates for statewide executive positions face initial skepticism from voters about their credentials, and that voters may be more comfortable with women holding legislative rather than executive positions (Dittmar 2012).3 With respect to statewide offices, Fox and Oxley (2003) find that women are more likely to seek and hold “feminine” offices such as state education official than “masculine” offices such as attorney general.

Growth in minority officeholding notwithstanding, the vast majority of elected officials of color are still elected from majority-minority districts (Grofman 1998; Lublin 1997; Wong 2006; Trounstine and Valdini 2008; Tesler and Sears 2010; Casellas 2011; Wong et al. 2011). Achieving statewide office remains quite difficult for people of color (Sonenshein 1990; Johnson, Oppenheimer, and Selin 2012).

However, the situation with respect to statewide executive officeholding is complex, with more cases of success than one might expect. Meanwhile, minority women’s state legislative officeholding is at a record high today, and women of color have driven a substantial proportion of the gains in Democratic women’s state legislative officeholding (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013).4 Among African American elected officials, the rate of growth among women has outpaced that of men (Smooth 2010, 168), and in some states, growth in Latina state legislative officeholding has surpassed that for Latinos and women overall (Fraga et al. 2006/2007, 131). With the substantial growth in the Latino and Asian American populations and the increase in minority women state legislators, it is likely that more women of color will run for statewide offices in the future.5

By analyzing access to statewide executive office rather than legislative office, I seek to broaden the study of minority women’s representation. Studies of women candidates of color usually examine legislative office (e.g., Philpot and Walton 2007; but see McClain, Carter, and Brady 2005; Lien and Swain 2013), and most officials who are women of color represent majority-minority districts (Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006; Palmer and Simon 2012). This scholarly focus is understandable, given that most minority women officeholders hold local and legislative positions. However, moving to a consideration of statewide office is necessary to fully understand whether and how gender and race matter in electoral politics and to identify ways that more women of color might reach statewide office in the future. While most research on statewide offices is about governors, the remaining executive offices are significant in their own right and often serve as a credential for gubernatorial and federal offices (Beyle 2011). Shifting attention to statewide executive contests can help scholars investigate aspects of elections that are less likely to occur in other types of races. For example, statewide contests are more likely to be competitive between the two parties than contests for the seats that women of color usually hold (i.e., safe, Democratic, majority-minority legislative seats).6 Such contests are also more likely to involve an electorate that is majority white.

A study focused on women of color specifically is warranted because their situation is unlikely to be captured by studies that rely on the lens of gender or race/ethnicity alone (Crenshaw 1989; Cohen 2003; Hancock 2007; Garcia Bedolla 2007; Junn and Brown 2008). The experiences and pathways to office of women of color often differ from those of both male candidates of color and white female candidates (McClain, Carter, and Brady 2005; Scola 2006; Philpot and Walton 2007; Fraga et al. 2006/2007; Lien et al. 2008; Sanbonmatsu, Carroll, and Walsh 2009; Palmer and Simon 2012; Lien and Swain 2013). For example, minority women make up a higher proportion of legislators of color than do white women among white legislators (Tate 2003; Garcia Bedolla, Tate, and Wong 2005; Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006). The determinants of state legislative officeholding for women of color differ from those for white women or minority men (Scola 2006, 2014). And there is some evidence that minority women are more ambitious than majority women (Darcy and Hadley 1988).

Women of color are likely to face a unique set of circumstances with respect to statewide office due to their location at the intersection of race and gender categories. While they face unique disadvantages, they could potentially be advantaged in some ways; after all, women of color may benefit from their in-built commonality with women voters as a group and voters of color as a group (Tate 1997, 2003; Smooth 2006; Bejarano 2013). Recent research points to the gendered nature of racial stereotypes, which seem to be largely driven by beliefs about minority men (Ghavami 2011; McConnaughy and White 2011; Ghavami and Peplau 2013). If voters’ racial stereotypes and fears are primarily directed toward men of color, women candidates of color may seem less threatening and hence more electable (Bejarano 2013).

I use the term “women of color” following Lien et al. (2008). Doing so may make racial categories appear to be fixed and natural rather than socially and politically contested categories (Omi and Winant 1994; Hochschild et al. 2012). And categorizing any group as a group—whether it be women of color, people of color, or women—can obscure variation within the group (e.g., Beltran 2010); factors such as citizenship status, sexuality, educational attainment, income, occupation, and language can create inequalities among women regarding the likelihood of political participation within and across racial/ethnic categories. The process of racialization is itself dynamic and unstable (Omi and Winant 1994; Kim 1999), and the layer of gender creates unique experiences as well as stereotypes (e.g., Giddings 1996; King 1988; Collins 2000; Lien 2001).

At the same time, grouping together “women of color” can be analytically useful given the structural situation of disadvantage created by race and gender inequalities (Lien et al. 2008). The common experience of being underrepresented as statewide executive officeholders is in itself reason to investigate “women of color” as a group. And, due to the small number of women of color who have ever achieved statewide office in the United States, combining women across racial/ethnic backgrounds makes an analysis more feasible.

In the remainder of this essay I assess the status of women of color with respect to statewide executive officeholding, conduct a preliminary analysis of candidacy and officeholding patterns across states and parties, and suggest additional avenues for research.

Statewide Elective Executive Offices: The Status of Women of Color

How are women of color faring with respect to statewide elective executive office? Race politics studies of stereotypes, campaigns, and statewide elections have largely been based on male candidates, and it is not known if those findings apply to women of color (e.g., Sonenshein 1990; Segura and Fraga 2008; Sigelman et al. 1995; Reeves 1997; Mendelberg 2001). The few women and politics studies about statewide executive office have not focused on race/ethnicity (e.g., Oxley and Fox 2004; Windett 2011).

I rely on data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) for my analysis. Women of color are making progress: they were 9.7% of all statewide executive women in 2014, up from 6.5% in the year 2000 (CAWP 2000, 2014b). Importantly, however, women of color fare much worse at the level of statewide elective executive office than at other levels of office. In 2014 minority women were a larger share of all female members of the US Congress (30.3%) and state legislators (21.0%) than they were of female statewide executives (9.7%) (CAWP 2014b). Women of color were just 3.5% of all statewide executives, whereas they constituted 4.5% of all members of Congress and 5.1% of all state legislators (CAWP 2014b).

Only two women of color served as governor in 2014: Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who is Asian American, and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who is Latina. These women—both of whom were elected in 2010—are the very first women of color to win election to the office of governor. Beyond these two women, there were only three white women and three men of color serving as governors in 2014.7 An African American or Native American woman has yet to win gubernatorial office. Looking more broadly at statewide offices, only one woman of color had ever served in the US Senate—Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois—prior to 2013, when Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono took her seat (CAWP 2014b). Because women of color are less well represented in state legislative and local offices than are men of color, the pool of women of color who are considered eligible for statewide office is arguably smaller than that of men of color (Tate 1997).

CAWP’s data also show that women of color are achieving statewide office in an expanding list of states. However, this list includes only fifteen states (CAWP 2014b).8 The first women to achieve statewide office did so in New Mexico in the early part of the twentieth century, for the office of secretary of state. New Mexico is essentially an outlier with respect to women of color and statewide office, boasting the highest total number of women of color to hold office within a given state and the highest number of different statewide offices achieved. California and Hawaii—which in addition to New Mexico, lead the nation for racial/ethnic diversity—elected their first women of color to statewide office in the 1970s. But about half of the cases of “firsts”—which I define as the first time a minority woman achieved statewide elective executive office in a state—have only occurred since 2000.9

A cursory investigation of these firsts for women of color confirms the importance of scholarship that examines women of color as a group—distinct from women as a group or people of color as a group. Between 1900 and 1999, Anglo women had achieved at least one statewide elective executive position in forty-eight of the fifty states.10 During the same period, men of color had achieved such offices in twenty-three states (Martin 2001). Thus, women of color have lagged behind both white women and men of color in terms of the range of states in which they have been able to secure these high offices.

In only one case (Hawaii) did a woman of color achieve a statewide executive office between 1900 and 1999 before an Anglo woman did so, confirming that women’s access to these offices depends on race/ethnicity. Five of the fifteen cases of firsts for women of color represent firsts for a person of color, indicating that women of color are differentially positioned with respect to statewide office than are men of color. The fact that there are five cases in which a woman of color was the first to shatter the racial barrier (with respect to statewide elective executive office) provides limited evidence that women of color sometimes hold an advantage over men of color.

In 2014 four Democratic women of color, compared with three Republican women of color, held statewide elective executive offices in which candidates must be elected statewide rather than from districts (CAWP 2014b). Although the overall number (seven) is quite small, Republican women are therefore nearly half of these minority women of color holding statewide office from the two major parties. In contrast, just 6.7% of minority women in Congress from the two major parties are Republicans, as are 7.2% of minority women state legislators; among all minority female members of Congress, 28 are Democrats and just 2 are Republicans, whereas among minority female state legislators across the fifty states, 347 are Democrats and 27 are Republicans (CAWP 2014b). The pool of Republican women of color who could launch a statewide bid for office from a state legislative or congressional seat is small.

What about candidates? Are women of color even entering races for statewide office? When all women candidates (regardless of race) between 2000 and 2012 are considered, Democratic women were the majority of all women candidates who sought the nomination of a major party (56.5% were Democrats and 43.5% were Republicans).11 Of these major party candidates vying for statewide executive positions, a total of 78 or 11.8% were women of color. The women of color who ran for statewide office were primarily Democrats (79.5%), while about one-fifth (20.5%) were Republicans. Among the Democratic women running statewide, 83.3% were white and 16.7% were women of color; among Republican women, 94.5% were white and only 5.5% were women of color. Thus, Democratic women of color are dramatically outpacing Republican women of color as statewide candidates.12

These statistics about the underrepresentation of minority women in statewide office is consistent with the idea that women of color are doubly disadvantaged by their location at the intersection of gender and race inequalities. At the same time, the existence of any success stories is significant and means that these offices are indeed within reach. In addition, the increase over time in the number of minority women seeking and winning statewide office suggests the growing importance of their candidacies.

Statewide Patterns in Candidacy and Officeholding

The fact that minority women are worse represented in statewide executive office than at other levels of office indicates that more research is needed. In this section, I analyze where women of color have sought and held statewide office as a first step in developing a larger research agenda in this area. I studied the settings (i.e., state and party contexts) that are—or are not—producing women of color as statewide executive candidates and officeholders. By conducting research at the state level as a departure point, I seek to focus scholarly attention on the racial and gender dynamics operating within state electoral politics as one avenue for scholarship; this approach is suggested by Dhamoon (2011), who argues that researchers should concentrate on systems and processes rather than identities and categories. What types of states are producing more diverse statewide officeholders? Where and through what mechanisms are women of color able to compete for and achieve statewide office?

A limitation of studying only the women of color who have run is that we may not observe women of color who failed to attract sufficient support to emerge as candidates and enter a primary election.13 For this reason, although it is important to study the experiences of candidates who are women of color, it is also important to consider the contexts in which women of color are—and are not—seeking and holding office. Although their presence in the population varies across states, women of color reside in all fifty states.

I conducted a preliminary analysis of determinants of the presence of women of color in the fifty states between 2000 and 2012.14 I examined each party separately, assembling a dataset of state-party dyads. I considered three aspects of minority women’s status with respect to statewide elective offices as dependent variables: whether a state had at least one minority female candidate in the primary, in the general election, or as a general election winner. While these three measures overlap to some extent, each captures a different aspect of a state’s experience with women of color candidates. For example, although winning office is the ultimate goal, the presence of women of color as statewide candidates is symbolically significant. Women of color can also use a statewide campaign to increase their visibility in the state and position themselves for another office. In addition, the ability of women of color to secure the party nomination is a distinct measure and attests to the presence of widespread party support.15

CAWP’s data show that there were a total of seventy-two women of color who sought a major party nomination in twenty-seven states between 2000 and 2012.16 Conversely, in twenty-three states, no women of color competed. In twenty-one states, at least one woman of color won the nomination of a major party. Thus, a major problem regarding minority women’s access to statewide office is that in just over half of states, no woman of color competed as a major party nominee. And in just nine states a major party woman of color won during this time period.

An obvious factor to consider is how a state’s diversity is related to minority women’s status as candidates and officeholders. I examined two aspects of state diversity as independent variables. First, I examined the diversity of the state population, given the long-standing role that the race/ethnic makeup of the population plays in understanding where candidates of color have won public office, including women of color (Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006). Second, I created a measure of state legislator diversity, which is the percentage of state legislators as of 2000 who are female and/or people of color; this measure succinctly captures the electorate’s willingness to support candidates other than the typical candidates, who are white males, as well as the pool of potential statewide candidates.17 While the presence of women in the population does not vary substantially across states, the racial/ethnic population does. Because the measures of racial/gender diversity of state legislators and the racial diversity of the state population measure are highly correlated (r = .72), I analyzed them separately, consistent with past studies of minority representation.18

I found, as expected, that more diverse states—captured either through racial diversity of the state population or state legislative diversity—were more likely to have women of color as statewide candidates. These effects indicate that more diverse states are more willing to elect women of color, and/or that those states contain a larger pool of potential candidates.19

While these variables reveal a strong statistical relationship, it is important to acknowledge that a large pool is not a necessary condition for the achievement of diversity in executive officeholding. Gender scholars have observed that the study of executive office differs in important ways from that of legislative office. For example, the smaller number of executive offices, compared with legislative offices, means that only a small number of women are needed to accomplish parity in executive office (Annesley et al. 2012). Thus, while we can expect a relationship between a larger presence of women of color in the state’s population and the presence of women of color in statewide office, a large pool of minority women officeholders may not be needed to yield a single case of success in achieving statewide executive office. In fact, some of the success stories of women of color in statewide officeholding have occurred in states lacking substantial minority populations or diverse state legislatures, such as Connecticut (Sanbonmatsu forthcoming).

I also examined the role of political parties in shaping the entrance and election of women of color, although how parties should be related to the candidacies of women of color is less clear from the literature. The role of parties in the recruitment and nomination of female candidates has attracted renewed interest in recent years (e.g., Sanbonmatsu 2006; Cohen et al. 2008; Crowder-Meyer 2010; Fox and Lawless 2010). But little attention has been paid to the role of political parties in statewide nominations, or to the role of parties in the election of women of color specifically (see Gallagher 2012 for an exception).20

Because the vast majority of elected officials who are women of color are Democrats, the relationship of women of color with the parties might seem obvious. Only a small fraction of elected officials of color are Republicans, consistent with the two parties’ realignment on civil rights (Carmines and Stimson 1989; Gurin, Hatchett, and Jackson 1989; Tate 1994).21 The parties’ distinct orientations toward racial politics continue, most recently with Republican Party support of voter identification laws and the party’s internal divisions on immigration policy.

Yet the first two women of color to win gubernatorial office—Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez, both of whom were elected in 2010—are Republicans. Therefore, the status of minority women within both political parties as statewide candidates and officeholders merits investigation.

Some gender scholars have argued that more party control over the recruitment and nomination of candidates benefits women (Burrell 1993, 1994; Caul and Tate 2002; Crowder-Meyer 2010). However, Niven (1998) finds that party leaders seek out candidates who resemble themselves, and Sanbonmatsu (2006) finds that party organizational strength negatively affects women’s state legislative representation. Meanwhile, Oxley and Fox (2004) did not find an effect for party control of nominations on women’s presence as statewide candidates.

The gendered nature of party leaders’ networks and party leader uncertainty about women’s electability reduces the likelihood that women will be recruited (Sanbonmatsu 2006). Although a disproportionate percentage of all women state legislators are Democrats—suggesting a Democratic edge with respect to the recruitment of women candidates (e.g., Elder 2012)—neither party appears to be sufficiently active in recruiting women (Sanbonmatsu 2006; Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013). Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are overlooked by party leaders as candidates for statewide executive office—even in states that often lead the nation in women’s state legislative representation (Sanbonmatsu 2006).

Compared with their Anglo Democratic female counterparts, women of color are less likely to have run for the state legislature as a result of party recruitment, consistent with the pattern that women of color are more likely to represent Democratic majority-minority districts (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013). While this implies that women of color can successfully reach the legislature without the benefit of party recruitment, it is also the case that the Democratic Party could be doing more to recruit women of color to run in a wider range of districts (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013). The same recruitment challenges may exist for statewide executive office.

Turning to the scholarship about race/ethnicity, racial minorities, like women as a group, tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party. But arguably, both major parties usually neglect African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans (Frymer 1999; Wong 2006; Kim 2007; Harris 2012).22 Democratic party leaders may not coalesce around a candidate of color out of fear of alienating white voters (Sonenshein 1990; Gamble 2010). Although whites can and do cast their ballots for minority candidates, it remains challenging for minority candidates to attract white voters, and racial fears and racially polarized voting persist (Sonenshein 1990; Hajnal 2007; Highton 2004; Segura and Fraga 2008; Frederick and Jeffries 2009; Jeffries and Wavro 2011).23 Statewide candidates of color typically need to balance a moderate campaign appeal to whites at the same time that they attract minority voters, although the opponent’s strategies and the nature of media coverage are also consequential (Sonenshein 1990; Mendelberg 2001; Caliendo and McIlwain 2006). While Barack Obama’s election led to arguments that the country is “postracial,” studies show that he won despite racial voting (Hutchings 2009; Pasek et al. 2009; Piston 2010; Schaffner 2011). Moreover, Obama’s election in 2008 mobilized the Tea Party, partly driven by race and immigration issues, helping the Republican Party to victories in the 2010 elections; his election even led to the racialization of attitudes on other policies, including health care (Tesler and Sears 2010; Skocpol and Williamson 2012; Tesler 2012).

The notion that women of color are doubly disadvantaged by race and gender suggests that greater party influence over the nomination would be detrimental to women of color. In other words, one would expect that any party leaders’ doubts about the competitiveness of female or minority candidates for statewide office would encompass women of color. To investigate this question, I analyzed the effect of party influence on the nomination and whether greater party influence negatively affected the presence of women of color, controlling for other factors. I also hypothesized that women of color candidates would be less likely to compete and win in states that experience higher levels of interparty competition. Party leaders are more likely to be actively involved in candidate selection for races that are expected to be competitive, making it less likely that a woman of color would be able to attract party support (Sanbonmatsu 2006). Risk-averse party leaders should be less likely to coalesce around candidates of nontraditional backgrounds (e.g., a candidate other than a white male).

On the other hand, if women of color are thought by party leaders to be electorally valuable—either due to the diverse party image that they may convey, or because of the coalition-building opportunities of such candidates—more party involvement in nominations might aid women of color. For example, if the Republican Party nominates a woman of color for statewide office, such a nomination could help the party’s image in a symbolic sense, assuring moderate white voters that the party is compassionate (Hutchings et al. 2004). If women of color were found to be more likely to run in states with greater two-party competition, then minority women may not be as disadvantaged as one might assume. Some Republicans have argued the merits of a more diverse party image, and racial and gender diversity have been showcased at recent Republican National Conventions (Fauntroy 2007; Philpot 2007). While implicit racially conservative appeals are attractive, racially inclusive appeals have certain electoral advantages (Mendelberg 2001; Hutchings et al. 2004). Republicans nominated several African American men for statewide races in 2006, including Michael Steele, who lost his bid for the US Senate but became Republican National Committee Chairman (Fauntroy 2007). Republican statewide candidates and officials of color, such as Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, represent a departure from the party’s traditional southern strategy and can alter traditional racial voting patterns (Bejarano and Segura 2007).

To operationalize party influence over the nomination, I created a dummy variable for the existence of a preprimary nominating convention.24 While parties predominantly use primary elections to select statewide candidates, some states provide parties with the ability, by law, to nominate candidates through conventions.25 These conventions give the endorsed candidate favorable ballot position or some other type of ballot advantage (Jewell and Morehouse 2001; Maisel and Brewer 2010). Studies have shown that states with these preprimary endorsements are less likely to experience contested or competitive primaries than are other states (Maisel et al. 1998; Jewell and Morehouse 2001).

The party’s ability to coalesce around a candidate may depend on the year and the constellation of candidates, and it may take multiple convention ballots to settle on one (Jewell and Morehouse 2001, 110–116). The percentage of convention votes needed to achieve an endorsement varies across states; in some states, multiple candidates can enter the primary with convention support. And in some states, candidates can petition to compete in the primary even if they fail to obtain sufficient support at the convention, thereby reducing the role of the party as a gatekeeper (Bott 1990).

But even though state parties may not always coalesce around a single candidate, we can expect that party leaders will be more influential in the candidate emergence process in states with nominating conventions than other states, other factors being equal. In states where parties exercise more control over the nomination, I hypothesized that it will be less likely that women of color have competed as candidates than in other states.

To operationalize party competition, I examine the extent of two-party competition in gubernatorial elections.26 This measure summarizes the level of competition in previous statewide races, with the drawback that it captures the level of party competition for the office of governor rather than all statewide contests.

In my preliminary analysis, no relationship—either positive or negative—was evident between preprimary conventions and the experience of having a woman of color competing for high office. Turning to the party competition measure, I also found no significant relationship between the degree of two-party competition and the status of women of color, controlling for other factors.27 While I found that party competition was positively correlated with the presence of women of color statewide candidates for the Democrats, the effect was not significant in the multivariate analysis.

The null results of the party influence variable indicate that statewide nominating conventions are a mixed blessing for women candidates of color. Party leaders are likely to be more influential in such conventions than in a primary, and those leaders are likely to be skeptical about the statewide viability of women of color candidates. And conventions could provide an opportunity for party activists to rely on stereotypes as they assess potential candidates (Bos 2011). At the same time, competing within the party ranks at a convention may be less expensive than running in a statewide primary; this aspect of conventions may aid women of color, who as a group tend to have fewer resources (Caul and Tate 2002; Johnson, Oppenheimer, and Selin 2012). Moreover, Jewell (1984) finds that statewide nominating conventions provide the party with an opportunity to create a balanced slate; while Jewell discussed balancing by ethnicity or region of a state, one can imagine the appeal of using the convention setting to try to balance on the dimensions of race and gender.28

While I primarily hypothesized that greater party competition would decrease the likelihood that women of color could seek or hold statewide office, it does not appear that party competition hurts their chances. The lack of an effect for party competition should be encouraging news for women of color.

Women of color candidates are, not surprisingly, disproportionately running as Democrats rather than Republicans. At the same time, the visible success of Republican women of color in statewide office shines a spotlight on the shortfalls of the Democratic Party. After all, women of color are 30.5% of all Democratic women state legislators in 2014, but have been just under 17% of Democratic women candidates for statewide executive office in recent years (CAWP 2014b). Although state legislative officeholding is not a prerequisite for running for statewide executive office, these women of color state legislators are a natural pool of women who might launch bids for statewide office.

Additional Areas for Research

In this section I use these initial findings to begin to identify some additional questions about statewide executive office and women of color for future researchers.

We have seen that there is some predictability to where women of color have sought and held office: states with more racially diverse populations and more diverse legislatures are, unsurprisingly, more likely to have women of color statewide executive candidates and officeholders. A number of questions about state diversity remain, however. In particular, given the strong relationship between state diversity and representation, why haven’t women of color had more success in the more diverse states? The low representation of women of color in statewide executive offices compared with other types and levels of offices is puzzling—particularly for those states with larger minority populations. What obstacles remain for women of color in these states?

As they investigate this question, scholars should be attentive to the geographic nature of Democratic and Republican Party support. A focus within states (or regions) to investigate these questions could prove productive. The southern states, and especially Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi, are home to large minority populations. Yet races for statewide executive office in the South have become exceedingly difficult for Democratic candidates. On a national scale as well, the Republican party is increasingly advantaged with respect to both state legislative and gubernatorial control (NCSL 2014). Republican party politics around race and immigration would seem to foreclose any opportunities for women of color as candidates. Nevertheless, some groups of women (e.g., Latinas and Asian American women) are more likely to identify as Republicans than others (e.g., African American women). The past successes of women of color in gaining statewide office as Republicans suggest that at least some scholarly attention could be directed to the status of women of color within Republican Party politics—particularly in Republican states with sizable minority populations. As noted previously, a large pool of women of color elected officials is not necessary to yield a statewide executive officeholder.

Another set of questions for research concerns internal Democratic Party politics, given that the vast majority of women of color candidates can be expected to continue to be Democrats for the foreseeable future. Understanding how women of color are faring in the Democratic Party is partly a question about coalitional politics and opportunities. Women of color have long occupied a unique position within both the civil rights and feminist movements (White 1999; Collins 2000; Alexander-Floyd 2007; Beltran 2010). As Democratic elected officials, party activists, and candidates, women of color can be caught between the two sets of organizations and their leaders (Chisholm 1973; Giddings 1996). How are women of color negotiating these communities as they seek to position themselves for statewide office? Are women of color overlooked as potential candidates within the women’s political community? Within communities of color?

The questions raised by scholars such as Bejarano (2013) and Smooth (2010) about the advantages that women of color might have with respect to legislative office can be asked of statewide office: Are women of color uniquely positioned in appealing to multiple constituencies? Multiracial/multiethnic coalitions are frequently necessary to be successful at the state level, posing both a challenge and a potential opportunity for minority women. Scholars could extend current research on voter reaction to minority women candidates to party elite attitudes, including attention to the race/ethnic background of party elites (Philpot and Walton 2007; Brown 2014a). Adding the factor of skin color to the analysis would be important, particularly given the focus on statewide contests (Strickland and Whicker 1992; Weaver 2012). And the surprising success of some Republican women of color suggests the need for research on whether voters evaluate women of color candidates differently by party.

Understanding how women of color are faring in the Democratic Party is partly a question about state party politics. The critical votes that women of color deliver to the Democratic Party in many states do not appear to be translating into elite Democratic support for women of color in statewide contests. I have analyzed state-level measures of party competition and party influence over the nomination in this essay. But additional elements of state party politics could be evaluated. For example, informal networks within state parties are consequential for accessing statewide office. Scholars could consider whether minority women have access to leadership positions within the party and whether they are achieving those elective positions that are perceived to be stepping stones to statewide candidacy. How are women of color navigating party networks—networks that are often dominated by white men—to build informal, early support for a statewide bid? Who in the Democratic Party is recruiting and encouraging women of color to seek statewide office? These questions are especially important to consider in more Democratic states.

A related line of inquiry centers on campaign finance. The difficulties that women have faced in reaching high office, including the office of the governor, are the challenges of building both party and donor support (Barbara Lee Family Foundation 2001; Baer 2003). Likewise, minority officeholders often lack resources for statewide candidacies (Johnson et al. 2012). The disadvantages that women of color face in the labor force, their higher rate of poverty, and limited or nonexistent assets have consequences for their ability to seek elective office, including state office (Collins 2000; Garcia et al. 2008). Campaign finance studies show that women of color are at a fund-raising disadvantage compared with other women (She Should Run 2012; Higher Heights and Center for American Women and Politics 2014). The expense of statewide elections can be daunting for any potential candidate, but particularly minority women. The importance of such research is growing as campaign costs rise and as the nature of campaigning in the Citizens United era of unregulated contributions continues to evolve.

Scholars can also disaggregate women of color and examine the situation of women by race/ethnicity (Cohen 2003; Lien et al. 2008). For example, the underrepresentation of African American women—traditionally the largest minority group of women in the United States—in state-level executive positions is particularly striking. No African American woman has achieved the office of governor; the few African Americans who have achieved gubernatorial office have been male. A host of factors divide women of color, including the construction of race, the nature of stereotypes, the role of immigration, and the availability of resources (Lien et al. 2008). Future research can compare the factors shaping the election of women of color across groups and allow for the possibility of intergroup competition among women of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The limited number of executive positions may mean that a gain for one underrepresented group comes at the expense of another (Hughes 2011).

Finally, scholars should consider the distinctive features of statewide executive elections, in that they typically involve the simultaneous election of multiple offices on a statewide basis (Sanbonmatsu 2015b). Scholars should ask whether statewide executive candidates emerge as a slate, whether statewide candidates campaign as a slate, and whether and how race and gender dynamics within parties affect the extent of diversity on the ticket. For example, can several women of color seek statewide office simultaneously? Is the emergence of women of color related to the candidacy decisions of men of color or non-Hispanic white women? Most states have multiple statewide offices, and many offices are term limited, creating multiple opportunities as well as predictable openings. How gender and racial diversity interacts with this unique aspect of statewide elections is unknown.

Investigating these questions about statewide elections and women of color can help advance the study of both race and gender and provide important insights more broadly into US elections and the quality of American democracy.


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(1) I am grateful to Gilda Morales, Christabel Cruz, and Hannah McVeigh for assistance. I thank Jessica Preece, Michael Miller, Niambi Carter, Denise Baer, and the anonymous reviewer for comments, and I thank NALEO and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies for data on Latino and African American candidacy and officeholding.

(2) I use the terms “white women” and “Anglo women” interchangeably to refer to nonhispanic white women and use “minority women” or “women of color” to indicate women who are African American, Latina, Asian American or Pacific Islander, or Native American. I use these categories with the recognition that they are fluid and that considerable diversity exists within categories, including ethnic differences. Given the persistence of racial inequalities, I employ these categories “provisionally,” as recommended by Junn and Brown (2008).

(3) Dittmar (2012) found that nearly half of Democratic political consultants (43%) in a national survey believe it is easier for women to win voter support for a seat in the US Senate than for gubernatorial office, though only about 16% of Republican political consultants thought so (Dittmar 2012). Meanwhile, most Republican consultants (72%) believe a woman’s chances are about the same whether she pursues a Senate seat versus the office of governor, whereas only 34% of Democratic consultants thought so. Smaller proportions identified the Senate as the more difficult office for women (3% of Republicans and 14% of Democrats).

(4) In 2014, 375 women of color held state legislative office (CAWP 2014b).

(5) According to the 2010 Census, minority females represent 18.4% of the total population (Census Fact Finder, accessed July 24, 2012). CAWP data show that women of color are only 5.1% of state legislators (CAWP 2014b).

(6) In light of Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), which invalidated a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act, the future of minority officeholding and existence of majority-minority districts in covered areas that had previously been subject to federal preclearance requirements is unclear. This decision increases the importance of understanding whether minority women are able to compete in a wider range of contests, including those that feature a majority white population.

(7) Data are from CAWP and the Center on the American Governor (CAWP 2014a) and Eagleton Institute of Politics website (accessed August 11, 2014, Martin (2001) found that only twelve men of color served as governors throughout the twentieth century. The first African American to win election to gubernatorial office in the twentieth century won in Virginia in 1989, the first Latino in 1916 in New Mexico, the first Asian American in Hawaii in 1974, and the first Native American in Oklahoma in 1950 (Martin 2001). The Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project only identified a total of 17 statewide elected officials of color in its 2004 study (Hardy-Fanta et al. 2006). A total of thirty-five women have ever served as governor, in twenty-six states (CAWP 2014a). The first woman elected to the governor’s mansion in her own right did so in 1974 (CAWP 2014a).

(8) The states are New Mexico, California, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Nevada, Indiana, Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, Arizona, Delaware, Montana, Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina. They appear in chronological order, with states that elected their first women of color in the same year listed alphabetically.

(9) Throughout my analysis, I only consider statewide elective executive offices in which the constituency for the office is the state rather than a district. The offices included are adjutant general, agriculture commissioner, attorney general, auditor, chief financial officer, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, commissioner of public lands, comptroller/controller, corporate commissioner, governor, lieutenant governor, mining inspector, public regulatory commissioner, public service commissioner, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction/education commissioner, tax commissioner, and treasurer.

(10) The two exceptions are Maine—which has never elected a woman to its sole executive position of governor—and Hawaii.

(11) I focus on recent elections, given that about half of the cases of firsts for women of color in statewide office have occurred since 2000. All data are from CAWP. Combining CAWP’s data with an original analysis of state election results from 2009 and 2012, I found that women of color were 3.4% of all general election candidates in partisan contests; women (regardless of race) were 24% of nearly 600 candidates. According to data from NALEO, Latinas were 5 of 18 general election candidates in 2010; according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Black Elected Officials Roster, women were 6 of 12 African American general election candidates in 2010.

(12) Voters who are women of color strongly favor the Democratic Party (Carroll 2014).

(13) An alternative strategy is to examine ambition at the individual level, which is the technique of Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless in their important studies of potential candidates (e.g., Fox and Lawless 2005; Lawless and Fox 2010). Using the Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study, Lawless (2012) finds that African American citizens are more likely than Latinos or whites to have seriously considered running for office, although she also finds that gender gaps in ambition persist across racial groups. On the question of whether women of color fit a traditional ambition framework, and whether they may prefer to focus on the local level, see Lien and Swain (2013).

(14) See Sanbonmatsu (2013) for the full results.

(15) I restrict this analysis to serious candidates (i.e., candidates who garnered at least 5% of the primary vote or who won the nomination through a preprimary convention).

(16) Among these candidates, about half were African American, with Latinas constituting the second largest group of women of color candidates.

(17) As Hughes (2013a) argues, the proportion of majority men in a legislature is an indicator of a state’s status quo with respect to race and gender. State legislator data were compiled from 2000 CAWP data; the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Black Elected Officials Roster; NALEO (1999); and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (2000–2001). US Census data are for 2000 (Humes et al. 2011).

(18) I used the Council of State Government’s Book of the States and state websites to assemble the data on statewide offices. Given the small size of my sample (N = 100), I included a limited number of independent variables in the model. I controlled for the total number of statewide elective executive offices in each state; states with more offices—and therefore more opportunities—should be more likely to incorporate nontraditional candidates such as women of color. I excluded Louisiana and Washington from the party nominee analysis, because they use the top-two primary system. I also controlled for party. As expected, the Democratic Party was more likely to see a woman of color competing for statewide office.

(19) This result departs from Hero (1998), who found a negative relationship between state diversity and minority state legislative officeholding.

(20) The role of party organizations in nominations is the subject of a renewed debate, given that US elections are conventionally understood to be candidate centered (Cohen et al. 2008). This debate about party influence in candidate selection has largely focused on the presidential level, with insufficient attention paid to the role of party nominations in contemporary state elections, as Ray La Raja (2010) has observed.

(21) See the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project, (accessed August 12, 2014).

(22) In the electorate, all three groups—particularly African Americans—are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party (Tate 1994; de la Garza 2004; Wong et al. 2011). However, Hajnal and Lee (2011) find that one-third of Asian Americans and Latinos are best understood as nonidentifiers, who do not identify as Independents or partisans on the traditional survey question about party identification.

(23) See Johnson, Oppenheimer, and Selin (2012) on African American access to the US Senate, and see Tate (1997) for an analysis of Carol Moseley Braun’s election to the Senate. On the potential costs to substantive representation of race-neutral campaign strategies, see Harris (2012).

(24) A limitation of this preliminary analysis is that the existence of statewide nominating conventions is a blunt measure of party influence; in some cases, candidates can petition to appear on the primary ballot if they fail to win sufficient convention support, weakening party control over the nomination. We also do not observe the informal candidate selection processes that take place within states early in the election cycle, in which potential candidates may be encouraged, or discouraged, by party leaders.

(25) These states are Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia.

(26) I use the absolute value of the average vote margin between the two major parties from the three most recent gubernatorial elections (prior to 2000). This measure is similar to that used by Dowling and Lem (2009). Data on gubernatorial election results are from the CQ Voting and Elections online database, (accessed July 11, 2013).

(27) Adding controls for the existence of term limits for statewide offices, region (south), and a state’s history with men of color in statewide elective executive office did not change the results. Employing the folded Ranney index of state party competition (Shufeldt and Flavin 2012) or an alternative measure (major party 2000 presidential vote margin) yielded the same results.

(28) The gubernatorial candidate’s selection of a running mate also provides a balancing opportunity (Fox and Oxley 2005).