Lauren Underwood is optimistic about her chances of winning a seat in Congress.
"This seat is 100 percent at play. It's winnable," the Democratic candidate says of the Illinois 14th Congressional District, which stretches along the western and northern sides of Chicago's outer suburbs.
Her attitude is maybe unremarkable — every candidate says they're optimistic — except for the fact that the odds are stacked against her. She knows very well that this race is considered a pretty safe bet for the GOP in November — the nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists it as a "likely Republican" win, meaning Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren has an excellent chance of holding onto his House seat.
Still, Underwood is undeterred.
"We're not in an average year, and I'm not an average candidate," she says. "I think that that matters. What we've seen in elections out of Virginia and Texas and the special [election] in Pennsylvania is that the candidate and the quality of the election that they're running matters a lot in the election outcome."
Underwood is in good company. This year's unprecedented crop of women running for office includes a glut of women running in races that, to put it mildly, will be a challenge for them to win in November.
Lots more women running equals lots more women losing
An NPR analysis shows that the influx of women candidates, beyond being heavily Democratic, features a glut of Democratic women running in races currently considered to be easy Republican wins.
In total, 49 percent of the Democratic women running for the House, Senate, and governor, not including incumbents, are in "likely" or "safe" Republican races. On the other side, 34 percent of Republican women running as non-incumbents are in likely or safe Democratic House, Senate, or governors' races.
And even those running for seats that are within reach for their party will still have to get through sometimes crowded primaries.
The bottom line is that a wave of female candidates is going to equal a wave of women losing in 2018.
Importantly, this doesn't necessarily make women unusual, according to an NPR analysis of the FEC's total candidate dataset. That data isn't perfect — it includes some candidates who filed but never made it to the ballot, for example — but it suggests that large numbers of men, particularly Democrats, have filed in districts that would be very difficult to win. Indeed, while the number of women running has increased substantially this year, the level of women as a share of all candidates has not increased all that much.
Interestingly, the districts featuring female candidates followed a similar pattern in the last midterms — with many Democratic women likewise running in solid Republican districts — according to data from March 2014 provided to NPR by both the Cook Political Report and Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics, or CAWP.
Both parties have seen increases in female candidates this cycle, though far more of the increase has been among Democratic women, who have been energized by their dislike of President Trump, as well as cultural forces like the #MeToo movement.
The large number of Democratic female candidates in those "solid" and "likely Republican" districts may reflect that energy, as women like Underwood hope to unseat staunch conservatives.
To be clear, the candidate field will narrow considerably in the primaries. Right now, according to the Rutgers data, there are 555 women in the running for 324 U.S. House, Senate or governors' races — a figure that includes incumbents, challengers and candidates in open races.
But in November, that wave of women will face its real numbers test.
How many women could be elected?
One way to look at the data: If a woman won every possible House race this November, women would occupy 264 House seats — well over half, and a roughly 150 percent bump from the current level of 106.
But take out all of those Democratic women in races that Cook considers "solid" or "likely" Republican and Republican women in "solid" or "likely Democratic" races, and there would be a potential 162 female House members. And that's potential — assuming all of those women won.
To be clear, this still gives women — particularly Democratic women — a good chance of picking up significant numbers of seats in November.
Toss-up races are one opportunity for this to happen. One easily overshadowed figure in the above charts is the number of women in toss-up races this year — twice as many GOP women as in 2014, and more than five times as many Democratic women.
Some women will lose, though. And that's OK with Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan group that recruits and trains women to run for office. She says her group is "coaching women to run to lose" for a few reasons.
"One, you might actually win, because this is such a crazy election cycle in 2018," Vilardi says. "No political pundit knows what voter turnout is going to be. Is it going to be 16 points higher [than the last mid-term election]? Eight points higher? Five points higher? We have no idea."
In addition, Vilardi says, a first-time candidate's 2018 campaign could teach them about fundraising and campaigning, not to mention giving them more name recognition, setting them up for an easier campaign in 2020.
Running a strong campaign in 2018 could also get a candidate more respect and power within her party in advance of future elections, Vilardi adds.
"Maybe it's also that you go to the party and say, 'If we had 12 people running in this race,' or 'If we had a ticket up and down,' or 'If we had been tending to the Latino population in this community,' or 'I registered 15,000 new Latinos as a part of this campaign' — those people are only voting for you. You're bringing that body of people with you," she says.
On top of all that, Vilardi adds, new candidates can give more visibility to otherwise ignored issues.
For now, Underwood has other things on her mind than the long game. She faces off against six other candidates on Tuesday (all of them men) for the Democratic nomination. She knows she's a strong candidate, having outraised all of her opponents who have filed fundraising reports combined, according to FEC data. But she does know that, if she wins, she'll have a much tougher race to run.
"We're going to need to raise two million dollars in the general," she says. "This will be a challenge. We're rising to that challenge."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's talk midterm elections now. The enthusiasm of Democrats is a major force shaping this year's crop of candidates. Among the results of a newly energized Democratic Party, far more women are running and expected to run in this election cycle than ran in 2014. A new NPR analysis shows, though, that a large number of those women will likely lose. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been reporting that story, and she's with us now. Hello.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hello.
MARTIN: So why is there a wave of women candidates right now?
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. There is a wave. And let's get into why. A key point here is that the wave is, by far, largely among Democratic women. You've seen a small bump among GOP women, as well. But it's mostly Democrats. And one big thing behind that wave - I've asked, you know, several women who are newly running for office this year, why are you running? And Donald Trump almost always comes up. He has very low approval ratings, especially among Democratic women. They often mention his, you know, sexual misconduct allegations, the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape and also his policies. You know, especially in areas like health care, I've had multiple candidates mention that.
But in addition, a lot of Democratic women just loved Hillary Clinton. And when they saw her lose, even though she lost, they were inspired by her. Aside from that, you have the #MeToo moment, and that really does cross party lines. There is a sense among many women that they are standing up for themselves, that men in power have behaved badly and that it's time for women to take charge.
MARTIN: And did you just say that there was a small bump among Republican women, as well?
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think that this wave of women candidates will mean a wave of women losing?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, because I went through the numbers, and what I found is that of this great big wave of women running, a big share are women who are running in races that will just be really hard for them to win. So once again, most of that wave is on the Democratic side. And nearly half of nonincumbent Democratic women who are running for governorships or Congress - nearly half of those are running in races that are considered either likely or safe Republican wins in November. Similarly, if you look at those Republican women, of which there are fewer, one-third of them are running in safe or likely Democratic wins.
MARTIN: But are there any women running in competitive districts? So is it possible that we could see an increase in the number of women in Congress?
KURTZLEBEN: Yes, absolutely. So while women are concentrated in some of those tough races, especially the Democratic women, there are also more women running in races that are considered toss0ups this year. So there is plenty of room for women to get more seats. I mean, keep in mind that Congress right now is only around 20 percent women. And, you know, more than half of the electorate is women. So women are not proportionally represented in Congress - their share of the electorate.
But one key thing to keep in mind is that these numbers that I'm talking about - they give us some perspective. The number of women has gone up sharply this year, and that is definitely noteworthy. But the share of candidates that are women has only gone up modestly. What we've seen is also a swelling in men who are running for Congress, as well, and governorships. So part of what we're seeing here is also that the Democratic Party has a strategy of contesting even the hardest races this year. And they're putting people up of both sexes to try to win those.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, are there other reasons to run in a race that you know you're likely to lose? Like, for example, is there some benefit to the experience or the exposure that you might get?
KURTZLEBEN: That's absolutely it. Yes. I mean, you know, no one is going to say - and no one does run with the intention of losing. But, you know, there are longer-term benefits to running a race, even if you lose it. You know, if you run for office this year, and you happen to lose, you've gained experience running. You may have been, you know, a newbie, but now the party, you know, respects you more, understands that, you know, you can handle this again. You have name recognition. Maybe you registered a lot of voters who are now loyal to you. So these tens of thousands of women who have come out, saying, you know, I'm interested in getting into politics more - advocates for women candidates - they don't see this as the next election's worth of candidates. They see it as the next generation's worth.
MARTIN: Well, thank you, Danielle.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.
MARTIN: That's NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben.
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