AUSTIN, Texas — Forget whether Hillary Clinton could win the White House in 2016. Women still have yet to run many statehouses, but in 2014 two Texas Democrats are going for a new kind of history: Winning as an all-female ticket for governor and lieutenant governor.
Woven into one of the nation’s most intriguing gubernatorial races this year is whether Democrat Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster over abortion restrictions catapulted the state senator to national fame this summer, can not only overcome long odds in a fiercely Republican state but pull off a political first.
If Davis and fellow state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor, prevail in their March primaries as expected, they’ll form what political experts say is only the fifth time in at least the past 20 years that a party has nominated women for both governor and lieutenant governor.
None of these pairings has ever won — nor have a woman governor and lieutenant governor ever served concurrently. Arizona in 1998 picked five women to the state’s top executive offices, including then-attorney general Janet Napolitano, though the state has no lieutenant governor.
The last all-female governor and lieutenant governor ticket was steamrolled in November by New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie on his easy path to re-election. That pair came away some advice for their Texas cohorts.
“Expect to be marginalized. Just be ready for it,” said New Jersey Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, who lost to Christie by 22 points.
Not all nominees run as “tickets” in the traditional sense. Texas is among the states that elect a governor and lieutenant governor separately, meaning that Davis and Van de Putte don’t come as a package even though they’ll overlap in message.
That message hasn’t focused on gender. Davis talks about education and weeding out cronyism while trying to forge a broader identity among voters who might only know her from her stand in pink running shoes on the Texas Senate floor for reproductive rights.
But Davis and Van de Putte, who’s Hispanic, can’t escape their obvious contrast to Republicans, whose entire statewide ticket in Texas this year is shaping up to be almost exclusively white and male.
“Diversity in government, I think, is incredibly important,” Davis said. “Bringing a variety of perspectives to the leadership table creates better government.”
Yet Republican can argue they’re doing the better job of putting women in governor’s mansions right now. The GOP has four nationwide to the one held by Democrats. But the party has recently acknowledged it could do better with women voters, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner saying in December that some members of his caucus could stand to be more “sensitive” at times.
Unlike New Jersey, Davis and Van de Putte aren’t challenging a popular incumbent-turned-potential presidential candidate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is stepping aside after 14 years and giving Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, the presumptive Republican nominee, the task of preserving two decades of statewide GOP rule.
That relegates Davis and Van de Putte to the status of most female tickets before them: underdogs, despite Texas having a stronger history than many states of electing powerful women leaders.
Former South Carolina GOP chairwoman Karen Floyd, who helmed the state party when Nikki Haley became South Carolina’s first female governor in 2011, hosted a summit in August to brainstorm how Republicans can elect more women.
The problem, she said, isn’t message but getting more women to run.
“The Democratic Party has a better track record. They’ve been doing it longer,” Floyd said. “I think you’ll see more Republican woman offer up. It’ll be a cascading effect.”
The closest two women have come to sweeping a state’s top two offices was 2004 in Missouri, when now-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and the party’s female nominee for lieutenant governor narrowly lost.
Female Democratic candidates tend to amplify the gender gap in elections, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She said the other recent all-female tickets were a pair of Illinois Democrats in 1994 and a pair of Kentucky Republicans in 1999.
Buono doesn’t believe being a woman was the deciding factor in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, but said they faced misogynistic and belittling remarks in a state where none of its 12 congressional members are women. One GOP county chairman compared Buono choosing Milly Silva, a labor leader who previously never ran for statewide office, as her running mate to picking his secretary.
Van de Putte recalled feeling marginalized in the Texas Senate in June when, as Republicans began stopping Davis’ filibuster, she took the microphone and asked: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
Van de Putte, who will face one of the four men vying for the Republican nomination, acknowledged it’s unusual to try winning with two women.
“But, you know, maybe it shouldn’t be,” Van de Putte said. “We just happen to be two gals. That’s the way it ended up.”