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Even in California, Democratic Women Must Overcome Political Hurdles

Traditional barriers and a unique primary system challenge candidates

California Democrat Katie Porter, who is running in the 45th District, speaks at an event in Laguna Woods on May 19. The California primary is on June 5. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
California Democrat Katie Porter, who is running in the 45th District, speaks at an event in Laguna Woods on May 19. The California primary is on June 5. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

NEWHALL, Calif. — Diane Trautman remembers a time when “hardened attitudes” existed toward female candidates in Southern California, including the notion “that women don’t have the brain power or the stamina … to really be effective leaders.”

Fast forward to the present.

“We still kind of see that treatment from people locally, but that’s changing as well,” said Trautman, a Democrat who challenged Republican Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon in the 25th District in 1996. Facing an incumbent with a campaign war chest 15 times the size of her own, she lost by 29 points.

This year, the 25th is considered a midterm battleground. And the congressional primary features two viable Democratic women. 

While many Democratic women have filed to run for Congress in California, the fields for the party’s top targeted seats have narrowed to only a handful ahead of the June 5 primary. That might be a surprise in a state represented by two female senators and home to the first female speaker of the House. 

“Sometimes people think about California as being kind of the vanguard of women in politics because of the leadership of Sen. [Kamala] Harris, Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and Minority Leader [Nancy] Pelosi,” said Katie Porter, a Democrat running in the 45th District. “And that kind of masks some of the reality in a lot of the other races.”

Porter pointed out that in a number of House races, including her own, for every one woman running, there are three or four male candidates.

“There is a lot of ground to be broken,” she said.

Democrats are targeting 10 Republican-held House seats in the Golden State. Three of those races do not have a female candidate. In two of them, only one Democratic woman is on the ballot. 

The GOP could see a boost in its female ranks following the primary, since its top hopefuls in two open seats are women. The seats are also in traditionally Republican areas of the state that have more developed pipelines for candidates looking to run for higher office.

Many male and female contenders on the Democratic side are first-time candidates — and that presents a challenge for fundraising in an expensive state. Some women point to additional barriers, from a male-dominated party infrastructure to sexism on the campaign trail.

Watch: California Primaries Packed With Democratic Candidates Hoping to Make the Cut

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Different obstacles? 

It’s not lost on Porter, a law professor, that she is the only female Democrat running in the Orange County-based 45th District to take on two-term GOP incumbent Mimi Walters.

A similar dynamic is playing out in neighboring districts. In the 39th, pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran is the only woman among the top Democratic candidates. Sara Jacobs, who worked in the Obama State Department, is the only female Democrat running in the 49th.

In the 48th District, no viable Democratic women remain.

“I think we see in the composition of the field a reflection of the longstanding problem of women not running, or being pushed out by some of the party establishment, or being told that they’re not ready or not credentialed,” Porter said.

Under California’s primary system, all candidates run on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to November. Concerned that the multitude of Democratic candidates could split the vote and end up shutting out the party from several races, members of the state’s congressional delegation approached Tran about dropping out of the race, she recalled. 

“My response to them has been always, ‘Let the voters of Orange County decide,’” said Tran, sporting a T-shirt with an “Elect More Women” slogan in pink letters at a recent event in Rowland Heights.

“I don’t think that the only female candidate, the only physician, and the only working mom … should be one of the candidates to drop out,” she said.

Katie Hill, a nonprofit executive challenging for the 25th District seat, said she faced questions — not asked of Bryan Caforio, the 2016 Democratic nominee who is also running this year  — about her viability as a candidate.

She is now considered one of the top Democrats in the race and has outraised the incumbent, GOP Rep. Steve Knight, in recent fundraising. Volcanologist Jessica Phoenix is also running. 

“From the very outset, I got over and over again people saying, ‘Yeah, it’s great or whatever, but I just don’t think a woman can beat Steve Knight,’” Hill said. “And you get questioned on your credentials and your background more than a man would. And you get told, ‘Why don’t you wait your turn?’”

She pointed out that none of the female candidates in the targeted Southern California races were endorsed by the California Democratic Party, which could not reach a consensus in the 39th and 49th districts. Jessica Morse, a former program analyst for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was endorsed by the state party in the 4th District, which is a Democratic target. 

“Women candidates have a harder time mainly because we don’t have the same financial might and the same political machinery,” Tran said.

Laura Oatman, who ended her campaign for the 48th District, said the local Democratic Party had not yet adjusted to a burst in energy prompted by President Donald Trump’s election.

Oatman dropped out of the race to improve Democrats' chances of advancing in the jungle primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Laura Oatman, center, dropped out of the 48th District race to improve Democrats’ chances of advancing in the jungle primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Oatman wanted to take on GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in part to increase the number of women in Congress. But after realizing her candidacy would further split the vote and potentially allow two Republicans to advance, she decided to drop out.

Once Rachel Payne also dropped out of the 48th District race, no top women remained.

“It’s sad,” Oatman said at a rally for fellow Democrat Harley Rouda in Laguna Beach on May 20. 

Breaking through

The top-two issue is not a concern for Democrats in some races and women have a shot at advancing. That’s the case for Porter and Hill, who still face competitive races on the Democratic side. Jacobs is also in the mix in the crowded 49th District primary.

Some women have a much steeper climb. In Tran’s race, operatives say the top two Democrats are Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn, who are both independently wealthy. In the Central Valley-based 10th District, Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño, who’s been endorsed by EMILY’s List, and emergency room nurse Sue Zwahlen, a former president of the Modesto City Schools Board of Education, are running. Both face well-funded male opponents, one of whom has high name recognition from previous congressional runs. 

On the Republican side, some women are in strong positions in the primary. Operatives on both sides agree that Young Kim, who worked for retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce in the 39th District, could take the first place spot on June 5. Kim is the only GOP woman in the race. State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey is also a top Republican candidate in the open 49th District, along with state Assemblyman Rocky Chávez and Kristin Gaspar, chairwoman of the San Diego Board of Supervisors.

Porter said Democrats need to “build a stronger pipeline of women” to counter the deep Republican benches in traditional GOP areas like Orange County. Groups like EMILY’s List are working to do at the local and state level, she said.

EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, has spent more than $2.5 million in the California primaries on behalf of four of its five endorsed candidates. The group’s independent expenditure arm has not spent to support Tran in the 39th District. 

A number of the women backed by EMILY’s List said the group was key to boosting their fundraising and lending credibility to their campaigns.

The bulk of the group’s spending, nearly $1.8 million, has gone to Jacobs. The Los Angeles Times reported that Jacobs’ wealthy grandfather, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, donated $1 million to EMILY’s List. 

Jacobs and EMILY’s List have been emphasizing that the 29-year-old would be a new kind of lawmaker, making thinly veiled references to her gender and age in television ads. 

“Congress has looked the same for a long time. It’s easy to see why we haven’t made progress,” a recent Jacobs ad says as images of older male lawmakers flash on screen. “If we want different results, we need to send different types of people to Congress.”

Whether these women will make it to the general election will be determined Tuesday. EMILY’s List spokeswoman Maeve Coyle noted the group’s endorsed candidates are running in “highly competitive districts.”

“You don’t go from 20 percent representation in Congress to 50 percent overnight,” Coyle said. “But we have continued to make significant progress this cycle in large part because of the hard work of our federal, state and local candidates in California.”

Correction Thursday, 5:34 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Democratic women running in California’s 10th District. 

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