Women broke barriers in the 2020 elections, both at the ballot box and as political donors. Unprecedented numbers of women ran for office and won their races. Come January, Congress and many state legislatures will become more representative of the nation as a whole, with women holding more seats than ever before. And in both state and federal races, women raised more money than in any prior cycle.
That’s according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in Politics. Political participation from women, both as candidates and as donors, has risen in the wake of the 2016 election. That trend notably spiked during the 2018 midterms and continued into the all-time most expensive 2020 election.
It was a historic year for many demographic groups of women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, with newly elected Black women, Indigenous women, Latina women and Asian American and Pacific Islander women breaking records in the U.S. House. Cori Bush is the first Black woman Missouri elected to Congress. Former Tacoma, Wash., Mayor Marilyn Strickland and California’s Michelle Steel are the first Korean American women elected to the House. While Democratic women won big in the 2018 midterms, Republican women made record gains in 2020.
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Building off of last month’s joint report on state and federal fundraising, this new analysis tracks the political participation of women candidates and donors in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 election cycles. Here are some key findings:
- Between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of women candidates in gubernatorial and state legislative races saw a jump, from 25 percent to 32 percent.
- At least 142 women will hold seats in the next Congress, an all-time high.
- In 2020 races for the U.S. House and Senate, women candidates outraised men on average, while also nearly closing the gap in state-level contests.
- In 2020 races, women accounted for 33 percent of donations to congressional candidates and 31 percent of donations to state-level candidates, both records.
Most States See Steady Increases in Women Candidates
While the prominence of women in high profile congressional races has risen over the past few cycles, state-level contests across the country have also seen a significant uptick in women candidates. With each presidential election cycle since 2012, women made up a larger and larger share of gubernatorial and state legislative candidates. Between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of women candidates saw its largest jump, from 25 percent to 32 percent. That’s a continuation of the trend from the 2018 midterms, when record numbers of women ran for office.
Nearly every state saw a higher percentage of women candidates in 2020 than four years earlier. In 23 states, the proportion of women candidates increased by at least 10 percent since 2012. Two states — Nevada (49 percent) and New Mexico (44 percent) — came close to reaching gender parity among candidates. The two states with the lowest proportion of women candidates in 2020 were South Carolina (23 percent) and West Virginia (18 percent).
Most of the gains made by women at the state level were made by Democrats. Women made up 44 percent of all Democratic candidates in 2020, up from 33 percent in 2016. While men made up 60 percent of Democratic challengers in 2016 contests, women outnumbered men as Democratic challengers for the first time in 2020. Those figures come on the heels of efforts from liberal groups such as EMILY’s List and donor circles such as the Electing Women Alliance to recruit and support women to run for office at all levels of government.
Republican women also made gains in state races, though they were less pronounced. Women made up nearly 23 percent of 2020 Republican candidates, up from 18 percent in 2016. The biggest jump came from non-incumbent Republicans. In 2016, nearly 19 percent of Republican challengers were women. That figure jumped to 27 percent in this year’s elections.
Women candidates generally won at the same rate at which they ran at the state level. In 2020, 32 percent of all candidates for state legislative and gubernatorial seats were women, and 32 percent of the general election winners were women. In the 2016 and 2012 election cycles, women only accounted for 26 percent of general election winners.
Gender parity at the state level is still a ways off despite modest gains. Nevada remains the only state in the nation with a majority-female legislature. The vast majority of leadership positions in state legislatures are held by men. Just seven women serve as speakers of state houses, and nine women currently serve as governors.
Congress Continues Its Climb Towards Gender Parity
It is well documented that the demographic makeup of political leaders is not representative of the U.S. population. The majority of Congress is made up of white and male leaders, and the majority of candidates are also largely white and male. Inroads were made this cycle to usher in candidates from a plethora of identity groups that have rarely held seats in Congress.
Congress made slight gains toward gender parity this cycle, due to the successes of both Republican and Democratic women in the House. In 2020 general election races, women made up 28 percent of House candidates and 25 percent of Senate candidates, both historic highs. That’s a shift from the 2016 election cycle, when 17 percent of congressional candidates were women.
The number of women running as Democrats has accelerated since the 2016 election, up from 28 percent to 46 percent of all Democratic House candidates in the general election. In response to the Democratic political gains in 2018’s “Year of the Woman” election, Republican women ran, fundraised and won at historic rates for the party. The proportion of Republican women running for the House doubled to 22 percent during the past four years.
Roughly 27 percent of women won their congressional races in 2020. When the next Congress is sworn in, 118 women will hold seats in the House and at least 24 women will serve in the Senate, depending on the results of Georgia’s runoffs. Both are historic numbers. Only 83 women were elected to the House in 2016 and the 2018 midterms elected 102 women.
Republican women made notable gains in Congress in the 2020 elections, nearly doubling the number of women in the House and Senate. The numbers are especially dramatic in the House, with the number of women rising from 13 to 29.
GOP groups such as Winning for Women and Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC ramped up their recruiting efforts after the 2018 midterms saw the number of Republican women in the House drop to its lowest in decades. The results were fruitful. Republican women such as Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota and Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma prevailed in some of the most expensive House races in the nation.
Democratic incumbents suffered high-profile losses, but the number of Democratic women in next year’s House will remain at 89, the same as the current Congress. Women make up 40 percent of Democratic House members, and 14 percent of Republicans, both all-time highs.
Women Outraised Men in Congressional Races, Closed the Gap in State Contests
Campaign cash, often the life and breath of campaigns, has historically been a barrier to entry for many demographic groups, but there is evidence from this cycle that in many cases women could and did raise sums comparable to men. In 2020 congressional races, women raised more than men on average, and nearly matched fundraising by men in state-level contests.
Among U.S. House candidates running in the 2020 cycle, women raised nearly $1.2 million on average, while men raised roughly $819,000. Democratic women raised $1.4 million on average, much higher than the $861,000 for Democratic men. Republican women in contrast raised only $816,000 on average, less than the $876,000 for men.
In U.S. Senate contests, women raised $6.2 million on average compared to $5.8 million for men. Democratic men outraised Democratic women by $8 million vs $6.2 million. Republican women outraised Republican men by $9.7 million vs $5.2 million.
Additional identity factors complicate this, as well as the relatively small number of women candidates to study compared to men. Black women, Latina women, Indigenous women, and Asian and Pacific Islander women face unique difficulties raising money compared to their white and male counterparts, according to previous research. This is notably apparent when looking at large donations, especially for Black women. In 2018, OpenSecrets found that Black women raised the least amount across all race and gender categories.
Moreover, research points to a reliance on small donations for women candidates. In other words, women have to raise higher numbers of small donations to reach aggregate totals comparable to men, who often have an advantage in large donations.
Raising the most campaign cash didn’t always translate to success. This cycle brought in historically expensive losses for women Democrats. Unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidates such as Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and Maine’s Sara Gideon raised record-breaking funds that did not translate to wins. The women were not alone in their historically expensive Senate losses: South Carolina candidate Jaime Harrison and North Carolina candidate Cal Cunningham also lost big.
It’s important to keep in mind that even when the amount of money candidates are able to raise and spend is equal between candidates, previous research has shown it takes even more money for women, especially women of color, to win elections. In other words, women running for office are often required to raise more money than their male counterparts to achieve the same levels of success.
Those gains in congressional campaign donations also translated to state-level candidates, though men generally still raised more than women. On average, male state candidates raised 29 percent more than women candidates in the 2012 election and 14 percent more in the 2016 contest. In 2020 state races, men raised an average 6 percent more than women.
In 2012, women made up 22 percent of the gubernatorial and state House candidates and took in 19 percent of the contributions. By 2020, women made up 32 percent of gubernatorial and state house candidates and took in 33 percent of the total campaign cash.
Women Gave Record Sums to Federal and State Candidates
Women donors have steadily increased their political donations since the 2016 election. The share of contributions greater than $200 from women rose from 28 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2018 to 33 percent in 2020. The gains were driven by the increased number of Democratic women running for office and by a large increase in support coming from women to the campaigns of Democratic men.
Democrats have benefited most from the surge in donations from women. Democratic congressional candidates brought in $338 million to Republicans’ $167 million in the 2020 cycle. Some of the top fundraisers of the 2020 cycle, including Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) received more than half of their campaign cash from women. And President-elect Joe Biden raised far more money from women than President Donald Trump.
When looking at these numbers it’s important to keep in mind who donates in the first place. Large political donors make up a very small percentage of the U.S. population, and research has shown that the higher the contribution threshold, the higher the percentage of campaign cash comes from men. Women made up 45 percent of donors in the 2020 cycle, but contributed less than 36 percent of the money in total. Both of those figures are historic highs.
On the state level, women donors have increased both the overall money they’ve contributed to candidates as well as their share of contributions in each election cycle. Women accounted for nearly 31 percent of 2020 donations, up from roughly 24 percent in the 2016 and 2012 contests.
Women and men donors have also increased their share of contributions going to women candidates since 2012, with women donors giving a much larger proportion of their contributions. Women are giving more amid the increase in women candidates. By 2020, women donors gave nearly half (46 percent) of their contributions to women candidates while men donors gave 24 percent (compared to 13 percent in 2012).