Will Iowa women make gains in 2014 elections?

DES MOINES – With six women running in House and Senate primaries in Iowa this year, some are wondering if 2014 might be the year that the state finally sends a woman to Washington.

Women’s groups have long bemoaned the fact that Iowa is one of just two states – the other being Mississippi – that has never elected a woman governor or member of Congress. Just why Iowa lags in electing women remains unclear, though likely factors include the state’s limited number of seats and low turnover in those jobs. But this year is different, with an open Senate seat and two open House seats.

“I definitely think it’s going to be the year of the women,” said Staci Appel, a former state senator who is running in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Tom Latham is retiring.

Some more high profile candidates opted out of congressional races last year, but a number of women are now seeking the seats.

Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst is running for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring. Three Democratic women – former lawmaker Swati Dandekar, Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon and state Rep. Anesa Kajtazovic – are vying in the primary election for the state’s 1st Congressional District, which is open because U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley is running for Senate.

Appel is running in the 3rd Congressional District and Republican Marianette Miller-Meeks, former director of the state Department of Public Health, will make her third run for the 2nd Congressional District, now held by Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack.

“The surprise this year is how many of them are running for Congress. I think some of them are quite possible,” said Jean Lloyd-Jones, a former Democratic state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1992 and who noted that win or lose, it’s good to get women into the political process. “It’s really good for younger women to see women running, and they can run and lose and the world doesn’t come to an end.”

In addition to limited opportunities to run, academic research has also shown that nationally, women are less likely to consider seeking office because of family responsibilities or a perception that they are not qualified. And Iowa women may be contending with a voter base that holds traditional views about gender roles, perhaps a legacy of the state’s small-town farming roots.

Ernst said that she has faced little commentary about her gender since entering the Senate race last summer, except for an older man asking her at a campaign event if she was “tough enough” for the job.

Her reply?

“It is no tougher than a deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said Ernst, who serves in the Iowa National Guard and is a veteran of the Iraq war. “People have to understand that regardless of gender, we’re strong candidates.”

The chances for the women in these races are tough to predict. Ernst faces a crowded Republican primary field and a formidable Democrat if she makes it to the general election. In the 1st Congressional District, the three women are competing in the Democratic primary against attorney Dave O’Brien and state Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has lined up strong union support. And Miller-Meeks has lost twice before in general elections.

Some said Appel, who is the leading Democrat competing in the 3rd District, may have the best shot, running in a district that has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats, but where President Barack Obama easily won in 2012.

“I think Staci has an excellent chance of winning. I think she has an excellent chance of being the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Iowa,” said Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat who was the state’s first woman candidate for governor in 1982 and ran again for U.S. Senate in 2010.

Efforts have also been underway to recruit women to run for the state Legislature, though there are a limited number of open seats this year, which means that major changes are unlikely. Currently women make up about 23 percent of the Legislature, putting Iowa in 27th place when it comes to female representation in the state General Assembly, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Lloyd-Jones co-founded an effort called “50/50 in 2020,” geared at getting more women into the Iowa General Assembly. They recently held a candidate training program and will do another session in the Iowa Capitol in April geared at those interested in running in 2016 and beyond.

Looking to the future, many think Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds has a good shot at becoming the first female governor down the line. This year Reynolds is running for re-election on a joint ticket with Gov. Terry Branstad, who has been a vocal supporter and advocate.

“I guess I haven’t made any bones about the fact that she’s as qualified as anybody to run for governor,” Branstad said, adding that that he would “certainly like to see” Reynolds as the state’s top executive.

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