Heather Cox Richardson
Yesterday, Representative Mary Peltola (D-AK) won Alaska’s House seat for a full term after taking it this summer in a special election to replace Representative Don Young (R-AK), who died in office in March after 49 years in Congress. Peltola is the first woman to represent Alaska and, as Yup’ik, is the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress.
Peltola was endorsed by Alaskans of both parties, including Republicans like Senator Lisa Murkowski. Peltola promised to protect abortion and the salmon fisheries and was elected thanks to Alaska’s recent adoption of ranked choice voting, in which votes from poorly polling candidates are redistributed to those at the top until one gets more than 50%. This method of voting tends to favor moderates. Peltola’s reelection stopped former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, whom Trump endorsed, from reentering politics.
Murkowski has also won reelection, defeating a Trump-backed challenger endorsed by the Alaska Republican Party. Trump targeted Murkowski after she voted to convict him for incitement of insurrection during his second impeachment after the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The reelections of Peltola and Murkowski illustrate that we are, in many different ways, at a sea change moment in American history.
In the past two years, Democrats have successfully pushed back on forty years of efforts to dismantle the business regulation, basic social safety net, promotion of infrastructure, protection of civil rights, and international cooperation that were the fundamental principles underpinning American government after the Depression and World War II. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with the Democratic Congress, have rebuilt some of the economic fairness of the old system and invested in infrastructure, while Biden, Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have strengthened the foreign alliances that the former president had undermined.
Democratic leadership is also changing in the House of Representatives as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) have stepped out of the top three leadership roles in the House to make way for members of a new generation, presumably Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Pete Aguilar (D-CA). Pelosi’s team has defended the liberal consensus and expanded it into health care and measures to address climate change; the new generation of Democrats seems likely to center issues like childcare and racial equality more fully than their predecessors did.
These changes embrace the demographic change the last election made so clear. Gen Z—the generation born after 1997—is racially and ethnically diverse. Its members want the government to do more to solve problems than it has done in their lifetime, and they are now politically awake. That generation looks much like the Millennials from the generation preceding it—those born between 1981 and 1996—and both groups strongly favor Democratic policies.
Peltola reflects another change visible after the election: the record number of women elected to office this cycle. Peltola will add one more woman to the House of Representatives, bringing the total to 124, one more than the record set by the current Congress. Murkowski will bring the total of female senators to 25, which is one fewer than the record of 26, set in 2020 thanks to a few special appointments for unexpectedly empty seats.
But the place women’s representation really changed in 2022 was in the number of women elected to govern their states. In 2018, just 16 female candidates ran for governorships. In 2022, there were 36 governor’s contests, and 25 women ran in them. Until now there have been only 45 women governors in our history, and only 9 in office at one time.
Beginning in 2023, a record number of twelve women will hold governorships. Incumbent female governors in Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, New Mexico, Michigan and South Dakota were reelected. Voters in Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon elected new governors who are women. And New Yorkers elected Kathy Hochul, who took office initially in 2021 to replace resigning governor Andrew Cuomo.
Meredith Conroy and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux of FiveThirtyEight note that historically, voters are less likely to vote for women for solo offices than as group lawmakers, but Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, told Jennifer Shutt of the Idaho Capital Sunthat a number of factors fed the success rate of women candidates this cycle. First, there is now a long enough history of women in high positions of leadership that voters have confidence in them, especially as some of them—like Kay Ivey in Alabama and Hochul in New York—stepped into their positions after their male predecessors resigned in disgrace.
Even more key, perhaps, was the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion guaranteed in 1973 by Roe v. Wade. Women turned out to protect their right to healthcare in this election and, not surprisingly, they turned to women governors who made protecting abortion care central to their reelection campaigns.
The female governors have a great deal of legislative experience, perhaps in part because their rise through the political ranks has been slow as it has been hampered by resistance. Republicans reelected female governors in South Dakota, Iowa, and Alabama and added Trump’s former White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as governor of Arkansas. While Sanders has no experience in elected office, the other three—South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, and Alabama’s Kay Ivey—all have significant experience in their state governments and, in Noem’s case, in Congress.
The same is even more true on the Democratic side. Maine’s Janet Mills, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, New York’s Kathy Hochul, New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, Oregon’s Tina Kotek, and Kansas’s Laura Kelly all have legislative experience; Maura Healey of Massachusetts twice won election as state attorney general.
While Noem made headlines for her fervent support of former president Trump, the new Democratic governors all ran as competent administrators who strongly opposed Trump-type politics. Maine’s Mills ran against a former governor who once described himself as “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” and Michigan’s Whitmer was such a target of the former president that she became the target of a kidnapping and murder plot.
This focus on competence and moderation clearly boosted Peltola and Murkowski, along with female candidates for governor, but the expansion of representation still does not come close to reflecting the actual percentage of women in the U.S. population. Nor does it reflect racial and ethnic identities. Women representatives are more diverse than in the Senate, but only two women senators—Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI)—are Asian American, and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is Latina. Since Vice President Kamala Harris resigned from the Senate to take her current office, there have been no Black women in the Senate.
Of the women governors, only New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is Latina, and voters have not yet put a Black women governor at the head of a state. They did, though, put Karen Bass, a Black former congressional representative, in charge of Los Angeles, with record voter turnout. Bass will be the first female mayor in the city’s 241-year history, and her charge is a big one: the city’s 3.8 million people give it more inhabitants than 22 U.S. states. Voters have also embraced other diversity: the new governors in Massachusetts and Oregon are openly lesbian.
That female candidates won so many seats—some contests had women running against each other—is “a really good reminder that women get to be as diverse in their viewpoints and perspectives, priorities, et cetera, as their male counterparts,” Dittmar told Jasmine Mithani of The 19th. “We get to see that being a woman candidate, being a woman doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody.”
The expansion of our political representation to reflect the many different people in our diverse democracy can only be a good thing.