Voters in Tuesday’s primary election put Minnesota’s first all-female U.S. Senate contest on the Nov. 6 ballot and increased the odds that the state will for the first time send a woman of color to the U.S. House, two signs of a national “pink wave” of women candidates running this year.
The trend is shaping up as historic. Across the country, record numbers of women are nominated for U.S. House and Senate seats. Women now hold 23 seats in the U.S. Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. In Minnesota, many women are running for the Legislature after a recent dip in the number of female state lawmakers.
“I’ve always believed that if we give women as many chances as we give men that women can advance at a higher rate,” said Hodan Hassan, who won the open DFL primary for a Minneapolis state House seat. As she campaigned for the DFL nomination, she encountered men and women who asked why she was running. “This is a man’s job,” they told the immigrant from Somalia, 37, a mental health practitioner.
Some analysts say the #MeToo movement is fueling the shift, but Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota and author of the Smart Politics blog, said it’s more likely a reaction to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016. The president’s politics and personality “rubbed many Americans, including many women, the wrong way and inspired them to take action and run for office,” he said.
Ostermeier cautioned that women’s gains this year may not continue indefinitely. Many female candidates are Democrats, he said — part of a highly motivated “blue wave” that is forming as a rebuke to Trump. When a natural, cyclical swing back to Republicans occurs, he said, the numbers could stall or even fall.
Three of the four nominees for Minnesota’s two U.S. Senate seats are women. “It’s very exciting even to be the first woman in the Republican Party ever to be nominated,” said state Sen. Karin Housley.
She’s running against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat who noted Tuesday that thousands of women are entering politics across the U.S. “I think that’s a good thing,” she said.
DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar is running for a third term. So far, with several primaries remaining, five states including Wisconsin have U.S. Senate races featuring two women.
Four Minnesota women have been nominated for U.S. House seats, which isn’t a record. But if three are elected, that would be a new high. State Rep. Ilhan Omar would be Minnesota’s first black woman in Congress if she wins in the Fifth District. She also would be the nation’s first Somali-American in Congress.
There also are more women nominees for governor nationwide than ever before. But Minnesota’s primary ended hopes that it would elect its first woman governor after 160 years of statehood. Two DFL candidates, Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Rep. Erin Murphy, lost. Six states have female governors.
Minnesota will surely have another female lieutenant governor — continuing an unbroken streak that began in 1983 — and its first American Indian in that office, whether Republican Donna Bergstrom or the DFL’s Peggy Flanagan wins.
The number of women in the 134-member Minnesota House currently totals 49 — a number that could rise after seven victories by women in contested primaries Tuesday.
Among those winners was Hassan in House District 62A, who said the decision to run wasn’t easy, but it felt like an obligation after Trump’s election and the restrictions he imposed on Muslim immigration. “What I saw was that it was a call for help. I felt like our country was calling for help and it was time to stand up,” she said.
Her campaign has taught her a lot about herself, Hassan said. “I have learned a great deal. It built me up in ways I never imagined.”
Linda Garrett-Johnson of Apple Valley was affected differently by her campaign for the DFL nomination in House District 57A. She finished second in a five-person race. “It really humbled me,” she said.
Garrett-Johnson, 59, who works in the health care industry, thought she could “bring my voice as a person of color and experience” to politics.
A first-time candidate, she did plenty of research about how to create a winning campaign. As she did so, she said, “I felt confident, but I also began to realize the depth of what’s needed to do this and the weight that’s on you.”
Still, Garrett-Johnson said a passion for politics is now “in my blood.” She’ll run again, maybe for the Legislature, school board or another office.
“I’m not sure when,” she said, “but I know I will.”
Women are winning because “honestly, they get things done” and male voters are finally giving them a chance to prove it, said Karla Scapanski, DFL primary winner from Becker, Minn., in state House District 15B. Scapanski, 51, an educator from Sauk Rapids, defeated another woman.
State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, was elected two years ago and will be on the ballot again in November after defeating a male challenger in the primary.
On the campaign trail, she said, there’s “a very positive vibe” toward female candidates “sometimes to the detriment of men. I think folks are really looking for a new voice and a new viewpoint.”
Things were different, though, when she first began to work at the Capitol.
“I was a little surprised by the good-old-boy attitude of some of the legislators and some of the comments that were made,” said Kunesh-Podein, 57, an educator.
Those remarks were sometimes demeaning, she said. Once she asked male colleagues to stop chatting while another woman was speaking. One of the men replied, “If she had anything important to say, maybe we’d listen.”
In politics and other parts of life, she feels supported by other women. “We’re all there to help each other and not to feel inadequate,” she said.
Irene Fernando, who advanced in Tuesday’s primary in a nonpartisan race for Hennepin County commissioner in District 2, was reminded during her campaign about how often women are made to feel inadequate.
Even after she raised the most money and campaigned hard, she said, “entering the primary, people were giving equal odds to some of my competitors who were men. … I definitely felt I had to earn every step of this.”
But Fernando, 32, a Filipino-American who works for a financial company, was not intimidated. What she’s learned as a candidate, she said, “is how willing I am to commit to what I believe.”
Judy Keen • 612-673-4234