A long century after our nation adopted the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, women across the country increasingly find themselves with a chance to cast their vote for fellow women. In fact, on both sides of the aisle, more women than ever are running — and winning. More than 40,000 women have entered the political arena since President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. The number of women running for governor has more than doubled, and there’s been a nearly 70 percent increase in women running for Congress.
This national momentum catapulted underfunded first-time female candidates past their male opponents, powering unexpected and historic wins by pioneers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York, and Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, who also defeated a male Democratic establishment candidate in a race for the House.
Unfortunately, this so-called “pink wave” has made a smaller splash in the very blue state of Maryland. To be sure, women fared well vying for seats in the state legislature. The number of female candidates for these seats, Democrat and Republican, has increased by 34 percent since 2014, and 57 percent of Democratic women won their local legislative primaries.
Outside the State House, however, the story is far bleaker. It remains appalling that none of Maryland’s elected federal or statewide officials are women — a fact that is unlikely to change this year. All six women who ran as Democrats for Congress or governor lost to men. And, except for Angela Alsobrooks’ decisive victory in Prince George’s County, female candidates also fell short in contested county executive races, as career public servants Vicki Almond in Baltimore County and Rose Krasnow in Montgomery County placed third behind male candidates in both their primaries.
Why is it that Maryland, which failed to ratify the 19th Amendment until 1941, has once again fallen well behind much of the country in the battle for gender equity?
Well, for one thing, female candidates across Maryland were significantly outspent by their male opponents. The differences nationwide between political expenditures by men and women running for public office are as stark as they can be fatal; the results at the polls for women in Maryland only reinforced the trend. Female candidates generally lacked access to the massive personal wealth and out-of-state business networks that propelled men, including first-time candidates, to victory in Maryland’s primaries. Indeed, the exception that proves the rule is Amie Hoeber, the Republican nominee for Congress, whose campaign coffer was buoyed by a super PAC funded by her husband.
Second, endorsements — which can spotlight a political newcomer or give an upstart candidate the edge in a close race — perpetuate the stranglehold men have on federal and statewide offices in Maryland. In fact, every currently elected federal and statewide official exclusively endorsed male candidates in federal and statewide races. And national organizations like Emily’s List appear to have less and less impact on local elections. In Maryland, for example, it made endorsements in only nine races and lost all but two of them, with its lone victories coming in campaigns where strong incumbents trounced challengers by lopsided margins.
So, what can be done?
Let’s start by urging the media to counteract the power of money. The crushing expense of television advertising in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., media markets makes it harder for female candidates to compete. To level the playing field, networks could lower the cost of political advertising, lengthen the period during which candidates are guaranteed the network’s lowest rates, broadcast profiles of all candidates in prime time and host more televised debates, especially for down-ballot races. This year, for example, not a single debate was televised in any of Maryland’s congressional races.
Preserving the exorbitant costs of campaigns overwhelmingly favors incumbents. And policies designed to benefit incumbents, if all your incumbents are men, are policies that benefit men.
But changes in media practice pale in comparison to the urgent need for campaign finance reform. Maryland allows corporate donations directly to candidates, which are banned by federal law and more than 20 other states, and the state does not require LLCs to file ownership information, making it hard to determine who is behind what contributions. Maryland’s contribution limit for local offices is also $6,000, compared to about $1,200 in states like Colorado and Delaware. Plus, a wealthy donor can give up to $18,000 (25 percent of Maryland’s median household income) to a single gubernatorial campaign by giving to each of three finance committees: one for governor, one for lieutenant governor and one for the joint ticket. Maryland’s high limits are exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision (McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), which erased ceilings — including a $10,000 cap in Maryland — on total giving by a single donor.
So long as only a quarter of political donations come from women, female candidates will remain hamstrung without meaningful campaign finance reform and robust public financing options.
Finally, we must inspire and facilitate greater turnout. Maryland saw a lower proportion of young voters and people of color in our primary elections than states where women won race after race like Texas, for example, where Democratic turnout increased by 100 percent. Passing the Election-Day Voter Registration Amendment this fall would expand the franchise, as would allowing — as New Hampshire does — unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary of their choice. Because unaffiliated voters tend to be younger and increasingly female, it is no coincidence that New Hampshire, which pioneered this rule, is the only state in the country to have elected a female governor and an all-female congressional delegation.
Many say these days that the future is female. But saying it is not enough. Our laws and policies must reflect our commitment to electing representatives as diverse as Maryland. In the great state of Barbara Mikulski and Harriet Tubman, we should expect nothing less.
Krish Vignarajah (firstname.lastname@example.org) was a Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland. She previously served at the White House as policy director to first lady Michelle Obama.