Why has Iowa not sent a woman to Congress or Terrace Hill?

As some Clinton supporters at MyDD never tire of reminding me, Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states that have never elected a woman governor, senator or Congressional representative.

Over at Iowa Independent, Douglas Burns wrote a feature on Ann Selzer, pollster for the Des Moines Register. She commented:

“I’m rather stymied by Iowa’s failure to elect a woman,” Selzer said. She chalks it up to lack of strong candidates of that gender so far rather than any deep-seeded sexism among Iowa natives.

Democrats are clearly not to blame for this problem. We have nominated two women for governor and many women for Congress. We’ve also nominated women to many statewide offices, and some of those, like Bonnie Campbell and Patty Judge, have been elected.

I think one issue is that we’ve got a lot of long-serving incumbents here, and rarely have we had open seats. Sheila McGuire ran for an open Congressional seat in 1994, but that was in the most Republican district in Iowa. Every other woman I can think of who has run for Congress in Iowa has had to face off against an incumbent. As we know, more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected to Congress.

Almost every ten years, Iowa loses a Congressional district, which means that even if an incumbent retires, there may not be an open seat available.

Roxanne Conlin ran for governor when the seat was open in 1982, but perhaps there was some backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment at that time. She also was not able to beat back the “Taxanne” message coming from the right-wing.

I believe that many women elected from other states benefit from belonging to a political dynasty. Some states have elected exactly one woman to Congress, and that woman happens to be the widow, daughter or grand-daughter of a long-serving incumbent. For instance, I think we can all agree that Stephanie Herseth would not have won an election in South Dakota without the Herseth family name. We haven’t had any women in that situation in Iowa.

About five years ago I attended a political science conference and heard Stephen Ansolabahere speak. He has published great work on Americans’ voting behavior.

I asked him about Iowa’s reluctance to elect women to high office. One point he made, which surprised me, is that of the 50 states, Iowa has the largest percentage of the population living in small towns and rural areas.

Nebraska, by contrast, is one of the most “urban” states, with a very large percentage of the population living in the Omaha or Lincoln metro areas and a much smaller percentage living in the smaller towns.

Perhaps the “political culture” of Iowa’s smaller towns creates a less friendly environment for women candidates. Most of the women in the Iowa legislature come from urban or suburban districts.

I think that the lack of opportunity for women to run for open seats is a bigger issue, though.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that women candidates may have an even tougher time defeating incumbents, but that isn’t the case just in Iowa. Someone, and I’m sorry I can’t remember who, studied 20 “serious Democratic challenges” to Republican-held seats in the U.S. House in 2006. A serious challenger was defined as someone who had raised at least $1 million by the end of June 2006. Of those 20 challengers, 13 were men and 7 were women.

On election day 2006, 12 of the 13 men on that list defeated the Republican incumbent, while 6 of the 7 women lost (the exception was Kirsten Gillibrand in New York).

In each case, you can construct a narrative for why the woman lost that has nothing to do with gender. However, looking at the totality of the outcomes in 2006, I think we can posit that the U.S. electorate is slightly more resistant to women challengers to Congressional incumbents.

SECOND UPDATE: I found this piece by Chris Bowers. He also wondered why Democratic women did so poorly in the 2006 elections. He noted that in the 30 Republican-held districts that were top targets for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s list, 21 of the Democratic candidates were men, and 9 were women. (Some of those were open seats, not challenges to incumbents.)

In those races, 20 of the 21 men won, while 8 of the 9 women lost. Again, it appears that American voters are more resistant to electing women to Congress, which could make the difference in a close race.

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  • Women Do Well in Rural Areas, Too

    I think there might be something to the rural/urban split that you mention, but I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dry as that.  There are certainly some long-standing state legislators from rural districts: Pettengill, De Boef, Tymeson (I guess you could call her district “suburban,” but Madison County isn’t much different from Iowa County, if you ask me), Ragan, Butka, and Upmeyer, for instance.

    I agree the split isn’t 50-50, but in my work in some of those districts I never noticed much of a gender gap.  I wish there was scientific polling with gender crosstabs available to look at for some of those races, but there isn’t that I know of.

    I would also bet that the more local you go, the more women there are holding public office.  I have met more female county auditors than male county auditors, for instance.  I have met many female county supervisors, although I’m less certain about the breakdown between men and women in those positions statewide.

    In any event, for a state that has never elected a woman to congress or to governor, I’ve found surprisingly few manifestations of gender bias anywhere in Iowa.  I’m obviously not a woman, so I’ll readily admit that I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed such manifestations and have less of a right to make judgments about them than those who would be more likely to notice them.  But each time a female has lost a race for congress or statewide office, there have been more obvious reasons why she lost than her gender.  That doesn’t mean gender didn’t matter (I’ve studied enough feminism and gender theory to know that it ALWAYS matters), but I don’t think we’re all bigots.

    One more thing to note: way back when Iowa used to elect its Lieutenant Governor separate from its Governor, we elected at least one woman to that position (Jo Ann Zimmerman).  It’s not the same as getting elected to governor, but when the two offices aren’t on one ticket, it’s somewhat comparable to a gubernatorial race, I think.

    • interesting point about local offices

      I would bet that a large majority of county supervisors in this state are men, though.

      I forgot that we used to elect the lieutenant governor separately from the governor.

    • I've long wished for...

      …a spreadsheet that would show the overall elected county, municipal and school board officials that could be filtered by gender. There are a lot of women elected in Iowa to those posts — my ballpark is 35-40 percent. It would also be interesting to have that information on other states and then compare it with Iowa’s.

      In addition to the rural/urban differences, I think a lot can be credited to age differences as well. Iowa’s voting base is typically older people, many of whom have a difficult time breaking out of “traditional” roles when it comes to both gender and race.

      My mother worked graveyard shift for years. She did so because she could sleep while we were at school and could still be “mom” after school and in the evenings. If one of us happened to be sick, she’d catnap while caring for us. For my parents’ generation, a woman’s primary responsibility was to home and family. (When many of the older Dems see me out and about, they always ask if my husband — you know, the father to our children — is home “babysitting.”) I think many Iowans, although it is changing as our population changes, still hold similar beliefs.

      This holds true when you look at the make-up of women who serve currently in our state legislature and also in many county offices. While there are some who are young and still have the pressures of both home and family, most are past their child-bearing years and/or have adult or young adult children. Remember the flap last spring when one of our legislators took time off to give birth to her son? (How dare she do that to her constituents! How can she go back to work and let someone else raise that baby!? Classic damned if you do & damned if you don’t.)

      • the school boards

        may even have more women than men–that would be my guess.

        It would be a great to have that kind of spreadsheet.

        Thanks for your comment.

  • Agreed

    I agree that I don’t sense any kind of endemic sexism in our state. Women have served and served well at almost every level of local, county and statewide office. Both my hometown and where I’m at now have both just elected female mayors. (Centerville and Iowa City; Centerville having done so for the first time in its history…) And as far as the governorship goes, it’s worth noting that we’re going on ten years of women holding the lieutenant governor’s office. All of this tells me that the state is more than ready to elect the right woman to the Senate or the governorship.

    Sadly, though, I’m not sure I see any strong women candidates coming down the pike in the next few years that I think could be elected to those offices.

    • we have plenty of women in the legislature

      who might take a stab at a Senate seat someday. I think we are developing a strong bench of candidates.

      But when our current U.S. senators have held those seats since 1980 and 1984, and both seem to be in good health, I don’t think anyone new will be elected to those seats for a long time yet.

      • Who and When?

        We do have plenty of strong women in the legislature. So do the Republicans. But why don’t we have a female Speaker of the House or Majority Leader? It just doesn’t seem to me that we’re doing a good job of putting women in those sort of key leadership positions that could help to springboard someone into a Congressional seat. (Plus, I wouldn’t mind shaking things up at the leadership level a little bit.) I certainly didn’t mean to suggest we don’t have good people in the legislature…just that we’re not doing a good job of setting them up to succeed.

        Our best shot is to help groom a strong female representative or senator to challenge Latham or even King. Grassley’s a lifer, and Culver should be in there for a long time. 🙂

        Also, if I were in charge of the Republican party and I was looking at a long shot 2010 Governor’s race I would seriously look at running a female candidate. Tami Wiencek and Libby Jacobs come to mind.

        • I agree with you

          I would love to replace some of our legislative leadership, and we have great women to put in those positions.

          Somehow I don’t think the GOP will turn to a woman to challenge Culver, but who knows? I could be wrong.

          Why did Libby Jacobs say she was quitting the legislature again? I missed that story.