Political newcomer Marie Newman had millions of dollars in outside spending behind her and the full embrace of women’s and abortion rights groups — and still came 2,000 votes shy of knocking off Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) this week.
But many in the political world weren’t at all surprised by the outcome.
For Newman and hundreds of other women vying for the House and Senate — many for the first time — their campaigns, no matter how much energy is behind them, often butt up against a nearly insurmountable wall: beating a sitting office-holder.
“It’s hard to beat an incumbent, period,” said Martha McKenna, a longtime Democratic political operative with stints at both EMILY’s List and Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. “Our best opportunity to elect new women to Congress is in Democratic open seats.”
Women are flocking to run for Congress in record-breaking numbers this year. After two primaries in the books — in Illinois and Texas — at least 464 female candidates are still on track to run for the House and Senate. If that number holds, it will shatter previous records in both chambers for the most women to ever run.
But more than half of all potential female candidates this year — 56 percent — are taking on incumbents, either in primaries or general election races, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. A fraction of the hundreds of women running will ultimately assume office, and that obstacle is a big reason why.
It’s among the dynamics being analyzed by the Women Rule Candidates Tracker, a research collaboration between POLITICO and the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers-New Brunswick and the Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center. The tracker will follow female candidates and how they fare through primary season and into November.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) took on a sitting one-term Republican in 2012, Bobby Schilling, and said she didn’t see much of an alternative if she really wanted to make it to Congress.
“There's not that many open seats that come around,” said Bustos, the first woman elected to Congress from her northwestern Illinois district. “If you're going to wait for an open seat, you're going to wait."
But Bustos is a rare success story. Beating an incumbent is a rarity, and the problem isn’t unique to female candidates.
Incumbents have historically high reelection rates no matter who their challenger is, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which has tracked the data going back decades.
Incumbent reelection rates in the Senate have hovered at nearly 80 percent or above over the last two decades, according to CRP. The number is higher in the House, where incumbents have consistently been reelected at an 85 percent rate or more since 1964. The reelection rate for the House was 97 percent in 2016.
The relatively few open seats to compete for leads to a high number of challengers in both chambers: 32 of the 52 women running for Senate this year are taking on incumbents as are 229 of the 412 female candidates competing in the House.
While Senate female challengers are generally split between primary and general elections, there is a sharp disparity in the House, where 88 percent of women running as challengers are competing against a sitting member of the opposite party.
Taking on an incumbent in the same party, like Newman did, is “very rare and incredibly difficult,” said Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Challengers like Newman start out at an inherent disadvantage. They have to build a campaign infrastructure from scratch, and raising money as a newcomer is much more difficult.
Christine Matthews, a longtime Republican pollster, cited fundraising as the main reason challengers have such a low success rate.
“It is easier if the incumbent is weak or the district looks particularly good for the challenger,” Matthews said. “This cycle, however, donors will be more likely to take a bet on a Democratic challenger if their district looks winnable because of the likely wave that is coming.”
That theory appears to be bearing out, particularly with female donors. Female donors account for 31 percent of all contributions to House candidates this cycle, higher than in any previous election, according to a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics. And the uptick can mostly be attributed to more donations to Democratic candidates, particularly women.
Outside groups, particularly abortion rights advocates, poured money into Newman’s race to help defeat Lipinski, one of the few remaining anti-abortion Democrats in the House. But the groups’ muscle didn’t really become a major factor until the last few months of the race, after Newman had proved to be competitive in polling. The relatively late arrival could have contributed to her narrow defeat.
Name ID is another huge hurdle. For Newman, the issue was particularly pronounced: a “Lipinski“ had been on the ballot for the southwest Chicago district for the last 35 years. His father, Bill Lipinski, preceded him in office.
Newman and her staff did not return requests for comment.
Then there are issues that female challengers have to face that their oftentimes male opponents do not.
“Women have such a fine tightrope that they have to walk — being taken seriously, gaining media attention and making sure that attention” is not for the wrong reasons, said Whitney Smith, a consultant who advises female candidates all all levels of office.
“Talking about my age, my significant other and the hyper-sexualization of women,” were all issues she faced in her bid for Ohio county commissioner in 2016, Smith said, and that she sees other female candidates having to address as well.
Still, several sources said they think female challengers will fare far better this year than in the past several election cycles given the current political climate. Democrats their best chance of taking back the House in years, and three-quarters of all female House and Senate candidates this cycle are running as Democrats.
“Are all the other things that stand in the way of beating incumbents still there? Yes,” said McKenna, the Democratic consultant. “But I feel like this is the year where being a female candidate just represents change and voters are very much looking for change.”