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Women’s interest in entering politics surged after Dobbs. So why aren’t they running?

Organizations say there's often a delay between deciding to seek office and running a successful campaign

House Democrats speak in front of the Supreme Court following the decision overturning Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.
House Democrats speak in front of the Supreme Court following the decision overturning Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Susanna Gibson remembers where she was and what she was doing on June 24, 2022, the way some remember 9/11 or the Challenger explosion. The nurse practitioner was sitting at her kitchen table in Henrico, Va., going over some patient charts, when her phone buzzed. It was one of her best friends, sharing a link to a news article.

“I saw this text come in, and the feeling of anger and sadness, and just fury but also powerlessness that I felt … I will never forget that,” she said.

The Supreme Court had just published its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The 6-3 ruling overturned Roe v. Wade’s holding that women have a constitutionally guaranteed right to abortion. Dobbs tossed out 50 years of precedent, allowed 21 states so far to enact laws banning or significantly curtailing women’s ability to end their pregnancies and pissed off a lot of women.

The news left Gibson literally floored at first. “I just laid down and looked at the ceiling and it took me probably 10 minutes to get up; I was just so distraught,” she said. “And I remember later that day, walking my dog around and around and around our neighborhood. … Walking around really feeling that sense of hopelessness and helplessness.”

Those feelings didn’t last long. Later that evening, she was marching at a protest organized by Planned Parenthood in Richmond. And a few weeks later, she was running for Virginia delegate in a recently redistricted (and newly competitive) district in the state capital’s suburbs.

Gibson wasn’t the only woman who, incensed by Roe’s reversal, thought about running for office. Organizations that recruit progressive candidates and train women to run for office say interest swelled in their programs in the immediate aftermath. But, so far, few have gone on to actually seek office.

Emerge, a campaign training outfit for Democratic women, said interest in their programs more than doubled after Dobbs. Traffic to their website spiked — 28,000 unique visitors that month, compared to less than 10,000 before — applications to their next training bootcamp went from less than 50 to over 100, and interest has remained elevated since, said Emerge President A’Shanti Gholar. “We actually started to see the uptick the moment the draft opinion leaked,” she said.

Run for Something, a group that recruits and teaches young progressives of all genders how to run, also reported an immediate Dobbs effect. Before the decision, the group would get around 250 people a week signing up for information about their training programs; in the three days after, 1,200 people signed up. Signups roughly doubled in the month after Dobbs, from 2,182 to around 4,700. 

She Should Run, a nonpartisan group that encourages women to consider seeking political office, similarly said that their webinars focused on reproductive health have drawn more attendees.

But a year later, those preliminary steps haven’t translated into a surge of women candidates.

EMILY’s List, which supports Democratic women who back abortion rights, said interest in its “run for” programs targeted at state and local offices increased after Dobbs, and that other programs created in response to the decision have drawn large crowds. But when asked for figures to compare before and after the decision, a spokeswoman said they were unavailable. 

“It’s unlikely [that there will be] evidence this soon that spikes in training interest are translating into more women candidates,” National Press Secretary Sara Spain responded in an email. “It takes time to build a candidacy, especially for folks who are new to the process.”

That matches preliminary data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which is tracking whether Dobbs will spur more women into the running. “It’s a little early to tell, but there are some telltale signs that don’t support that,” said CAWP Director Debbie Walsh.

Thus far, there are fewer women running for Congress in 2024 compared to this point in recent past election cycles. CAWP tallies the number of potential and declared women candidates (including incumbents) and, as of Tuesday, they count 241 likely candidates for 2024. That’s a big drop off from 347 women who ran in the 2022 midterms as of July 7, 2021. 

Filing deadlines for 2024 are still months away, so those figures could still swell to match or even exceed earlier cycles, Walsh said. But this year’s bellwether elections in Virginia and New Jersey have dampened Walsh’s hopes.

Following the primaries earlier this month, CAWP found that the numbers of women nominees for New Jersey’s state senate and assembly were roughly level — although down slightly — from the records set in 2017 and 2021 respectively.

In Virginia, female representation among state senate nominees increased slightly to 27 out of 72 candidates — a new record, led by Democrats picking women in 22 of 38 races — and that figure could rise to 29 depending on results in two still uncalled races. But the number of women vying for delegate seats dropped significantly this year, from 2021’s record of 72 to 58.

The Dobbs effect on voters

Dobbs quickly redrew the nation’s political landscape. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans agree with the Democratic position that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The party went from being barely able to utter the word to making abortion the most frequently mentioned issue in their advertising, per a recent AdImpact report, while GOP politicians suddenly find themselves trying to change the topic.

From Arizona to New York, Democrats announcing their candidacies for Congress are introducing themselves to voters as women running to protect abortion access.

Russet Perry, a former Loudon County prosecutor and CIA officer running for Virginia’s state Senate, said abortion was not the “only reason that I’m running, but it is absolutely, definitely on the top of the pile.”

“I’m 39 years old [and] I have a 14-year-old daughter, so it’s still an issue that’s personal to me,” she said. “I didn’t think it was an issue I would be fighting in my lifetime. And it’s definitely not something that I want her to have to worry about.”

According to a GOP polling memo obtained by CQ Roll Call in May, “Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” heavily preferred an unnamed, or “generic” Democratic Senate candidate over a generic Republican after the Dobbs decision, leading to a 6-point swing. Strategists in both parties credited the issue for Democrats’ relatively strong performance in the 2022 midterms, where they gained a Senate seat and held Republicans to a slim majority in the House despite the persistently high inflation and President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings.

So the indications that fewer women may be running even as Dobbs boosts other forms of engagement is a bit of a mystery to researchers who study female political participation. It’s not political apathy; women have outvoted men for decades. Women made up around 52 percent of voters in last year’s midterms, but just 28 percent of members in the current Congress. Still, that total — 153 women out of 540 voting and nonvoting members at the start of the 118th Congress — is a record and 59 percent more than a decade earlier.

Much of that increase can be attributed to waves of Democratic women who launched campaigns and won, starting in 2018, shocked by Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016 — even after his infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes leaked. A similar “Year of the Woman” came in 1992, after they watched an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee defend Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment allegations at his televised confirmation hearings. The number of Republican women in Congress has also grown but more slowly and steadily, without the large upswings found on the left.

In those cases, Democratic women were spurred into running after they saw a lack of female representation amid objectionable political developments, said Occidental College political scientist Jennifer Piscopo, citing a recent paper she co-authored with Amanda Clayton at Vanderbilt University and Diana O’Brien at. Washington University in St. Louis.

The preliminary evidence that lots of Democratic women looked into running but haven’t yet jumped into a race, suggests they might be tapped out, Piscopo said. “The Democratic women that are likely to be mobilized by this sense of threat — this sense of feeling like you need to get in there and make the difference — they might already be there [in office],” she said. “There might not have been too many more women for Dobbs to really move or push over the edge.”

Unlike many male politicians, who tend to think of running for office as a career choice — an eventuality that they plan their lives around years in advance — most women need to be prodded, Piscopo said. “It really is this situational moment. And the situation that we focus on in our study is this sense of exclusion [from political decision-making] and policy threat, but there’s going to be other situational factors, right? Is it the right time for my family? Is it the right time for my children? Do we have the money to do this?”

One of those women is Jumelle Brooks. The high school teacher with a doctorate in health care administration had long considered running for office one day, but the timing never seemed quite right. “I always thought, well, I’ll get there. Let me get a couple more years under my belt in this field, in that field,” she said.

Then Dobbs happened. The mostly male lawmakers in her state, South Carolina, have already tried to enact a six-week abortion ban, though that has been blocked in court. So, Brooks plans to run for a state House seat next year, challenging a freshman Republican who narrowly flipped the 12th District in 2022. “I don’t think that individuals who don’t possess the organs to birth a child should be the individuals who say that you don’t have a right to have an abortion,” she said.

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