The numbers are stark: Democratic women are winning primaries in historic numbers, toppling male opponents in House races that polling, party politics, or conventional wisdom say they’re supposed to lose.
Tuesday night, it was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina woman, stunning one of the House’s most powerful Democratic incumbents. Before her, there was Amy McGrath in Kentucky, who in December was trailing by 47 points to a longtime Democratic mayor, and Kara Eastman in Nebraska, a political newcomer who beat out the district’s onetime congressman.
Overall, nearly half of the women running in primaries — some 169 candidates — have won them. On Tuesday, 32 of the 61 women vying for office won their primary.
Democratic pollsters say that male voters in Democratic primaries, too, want women candidates. Earlier this year, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman calculated a 15% bonus for women candidates in Democratic primaries.
But why? The narrative seems simple — and not exactly a surprise — but there’s no singular consensus on why women candidates are doing so much better.
Everyone’s got a theory. And if the answer boils down to a unique quality women candidates have, even the question of what that quality is is up for debate.
It’s that voters are looking for political outsiders and women better fit that mold: They’re seen as fresh faces, a contrast to the white male political establishment. Or it’s that voters are looking for authenticity and find it in women candidates who seem to be running for something other than political power. Or it’s about policy: Voters think women have authority when it comes to the things Democratic voters care about, like health care and education. Or it’s the national climate, far beyond politics, that is making Democratic voters want to put women in power.
Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer swept into office as part of “The Year of the Woman” in 1992, when the Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings were widely seen as the catalyst for the record-setting election of four women to the Senate. It was, Boxer said, a “shock to the system.”
Twenty-six years later, Boxer told BuzzFeed News she sees the #MeToo movement acting as a “trigger” the way Anita Hill was, though it’s only a piece of the puzzle. But this time, she said, the shock is bigger, and so is the system. “MeToo is broader — it’s many people, all coming forward,” Boxer said.
“I really do think the zeitgeist of Time’s Up and #MeToo are making women’s leadership erupt,” said Jenifer Fernandez, the vice president of the Women Donors Network. “It’s ironic this comes after Hillary lost. If Trump winning was a white backlash, Hillary losing has been this backlash around women’s leadership, and it’s everywhere. It’s time to try something different.”
The idea of a gender bonus rings true for some Democrats working on the ground on campaigns.
“I’m counting on the fact that she’s a woman helping us out,” said one campaign strategist whose candidate was facing a male primary opponent.
“I felt like, for us, gender absolutely played a role in our race,” said another strategist. “I don’t think that was the only factor, but once it narrowed down to us, it did matter.”
In that race, the strategist said, he thought it was Republican policies that gave his candidate an edge because of her gender. In a conservative-leaning state where abortion rights, health care costs, and education cuts were by far the most talked-about issues, voters saw a woman candidate as better matched to identify and fix those problems.
The Trump administration’s policies are motivating voters on issues where women are “uniquely qualified,” said Amanda Brown Lierman, the political and organizing director of the Democratic National Committee.
“We’ve been watching as we’ve become this country where the attorney general is denying asylum to victims of domestic violence and the administration is ripping away access to health care, to critical birth control, and Republicans are trying to defund Planned Parenthood like, every day,” said Lierman said. “America is hungry for female leadership on these issues right now.”
Or, maybe, it doesn’t have much to do with gender at all. Some Democrats argue that the “bonus” for women candidates — the idea that voters are picking candidates at the ballot box in part because of their gender — is, in fact, an illusion. Instead, they think a surge of high-quality women candidates has led to more women nominees.
EMILY’s List, the group devoted to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, has seen unprecedented success so far this cycle. But the group is pushing against the idea of a gender bonus.
“We’ve got really, really quality candidates who are so relatable to voters on the ground in a way that we’ve never had. We’ve never had numbers of candidates like this,” said Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president. “At the end of the day, they’re running really good campaigns.”
After years of going out and begging women candidates to run, Schriock said, the group has been deluged with women coming to it for help running for office.
They contend the women candidates running this year have better stories to tell. Cindy Axne, an EMILY’s List–endorsed candidate in Iowa, won a competitive primary in a campaign that focused largely on health care. She spoke often of the story of her second pregnancy, when she couldn’t afford private health insurance that would cover maternity. “It was supposed to be the most joyous time in our lives — instead, my husband and I had to resort to selling our personal belongings on eBay to avoid bankruptcy,” she wrote.
(EMILY’s List has also been, as they support a wide array of candidates, a little behind on some of the biggest stories when it comes to House challengers: They didn’t back Ocasio-Cortez or Eastman during their primaries.)
Other Democratic figures think voters are looking for one important thing: change. They’re finding it, disproportionately, in women.
Notably, in New York on Tuesday, several young Democrats challenged standing members of Congress and performed well — but only Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist woman of color running against a man, prevailed.
“If we want a different outcome, we need to change the dynamics in government, and change who has a seat at the table, because women’s priorities and solutions are different,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “That’s exactly what’s been happening over the past year and a half.”
“We’ve got these angry men in parties in Washington fighting each other,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime strategist. “It’s creating this urge to elect women. Someone who’s not part of the Washington bickering, who might get things done — an outsider.”