Jean Wagenius has represented her urban House district in the Minnesota Legislature since 1987, and even before that, she lobbied legislators on behalf of Democratic feminist groups. Her advocacy was instrumental in the appointment of Minnesota’s first-ever female Supreme Court Justice, Rosalie Wahl.
Despite that record, Wagenius is being challenged for the endorsement in her seat, which covers south Minneapolis and Richfield, by four other candidates — all of them women.
“I think it’s terrific,” Wagenius said this week. “I’m glad to see more women interested in public office. This is what democracy is all about.”
That race is just one of many in districts across the state, from the state House and the governor to Congress, where women are stepping up in a big way to run for office. There are three women still in the race for Minnesota’s next governor, and seven women are running to represent one of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts. Minnesota’s two incumbent U.S. senators are women, and next fall, it looks likely that one race will be a matchup between two women: DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican state Sen. Karin Housley.
“This mirrors the national trend,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women in Politics. “We are seeing record numbers of women launching campaigns, particularly in congressional and statewide races.”
It’s not exactly surprising: Women have been growing in the ranks of state and national government for years, but there are still barriers. In Minnesota, women still only hold 66 seats in the 201-seat Legislature, or roughly one-third, and there is currently only one woman representing Minnesota in the state’s Congressional delegation. And then there’s the highest glass ceiling: The governor’s office has never been held by a woman in Minnesota.
This cycle, more women candidates in both parties are doing something they’d been hesitant to do before: challenge incumbents, even if it means they might have to try more than once.
“What is different this year is women are willing to run even if the odds are stacked against them,” Jennifer DeJournett, who leads Voices of Conservative Women, a campaign group that supports Republican women candidates. “Women are typically very cautious about jumping into a race, but I’m sensing this extra fierceness. They’re saying, if it takes me once and it takes me twice, I don’t care, I’m going to run anyway.”
Not ‘waiting forever’
The situation has been a long time coming. Studies show women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office, or even grow up thinking being in politics is a feasible career path. Women tend to spend more time researching a potential run and need to be heavily recruited — often asked more than once. Even if they are recruited, women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
But Melissa Hortman, the DFL House Minority Leader who is running the campaign to pick up the 11 seats her party needs to take control of the chamber, said it feels like huge wave of women are stepping up to run this year, many of them for the first time. There are currently 50 DFL women running in House seats across the state, she said, from competitive primaries in urban districts to women taking on incumbents in deep red seats in rural Minnesota.
“We’ve got these young women running against these older [Republican] men in rural Minnesota, these men who could be described as out-of-touch and out-of-date,” Hortman said. “[These women candidates] are savvy and have great social media presence and they are raising money.”
On the DFL side, some of those women first got involved through the Women’s March in January of 2017. Since the march, Hortman said a number of things have kept women engaged, whether it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “nevertheless, she persisted” comments about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or the growing #TimesUP or #MeToo movements, urging women to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment. “It kept what was there after the Trump election fresh,” Hortman said.
Mindy Kimmel is one of the women who attended the Women’s March and is now seeking a state House seat that includes her hometown of New Ulm, Minnesota. She’d never thought about running for office before joining the march, but over the months that followed, she felt like she had to do more. “I thought, I’m done trusting other people to do this for me,” she said. “I really need to step up.”
She’s running against five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, who chairs the transportation finance committee and represents a deeply red district. “It really is an area where people are proud to support Trump and his policies and Republicans up and down the ticket,” Kimmel said. “I know running as a Democrat puts me at a disadvantage, but I dont think it’s impossible. I wouldn’t run if I didn’t believe I could win it.”
Leili Fatehi’s challenge is different: She is running against Wagenius, an incumbent lawmaker and a woman in her own party. But after years of working as an advocate at the Capitol on environmental sustainability and other social issues, Fatehi felt just having a dependable DFL vote in the district wasn’t enough.
“We need someone who is more than a vote. At the local level, we’ve seen when policymakers really partner with the grassroots and engage proactively in setting a policy agenda and working proactively to accomplish it, we’ve been able to get things like $15 per hour minimum wage, sick and safe time and plastic bag bans,” she said.
Fatehi is also one of three women of color running for the seat in the district, and if she were to win in November, Fatehi would be the first Iranian American woman elected to any office. “If we want to wait our turn we will be waiting forever,” Fatehi said.
Women ‘throwing their names in the ring’
It’s not just Democratic women who are challenging incumbents or other candidates they see as the status quo, DeJournett said. She notes Housley, a two-term Republican state senator, quickly got into the U.S. Senate race for the seat that Al Franken unexpectedly left late last year. While some men were debating whether they were going to jump into the mix, Housley didn’t hesitate, a move many say mostly cleared the field of Republican opponents.
In gubernatorial races, 34 women have alreay filed to run for the office in states across the country, and there are 47 other women who have publicly declared the are running for governor but haven’t filed yet, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. That’s already as many the previous record high, in 1994, when 34 women total filed to run in gubernatorial races.
This year, that number includes Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, the only woman currently running on the Republican side of the ticket in the state’s open race for governor. Two DFL women, Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and state Auditor Rebecca Otto, are running for governor as well. Only one woman, former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, has ever been endorsed by either of the major political parties to run for governor, but she lost in a primary election to current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. The Republican Party of Minnesota has never endorsed a woman for governor.
Giuliani Stephens said she’s focusing her campaign on her record of executive experience as a mayor, but delegates have mentioned to her that the party has never endorsed a woman for the office. “When women get more involved in all kinds of areas and professions, they can be that example and role model so that other women can follow,” she said.
In the 1st Congressional District, third-term Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is challenging Republican candidate Jim Hagedorn in a primary to run for the seat this fall. Hagedorn has run and lost twice to DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, but Walz is leaving the seat to run for governor. Some activists think Hagedorn should again be the party’s nominee this fall.
But Nelson is taking him on in a primary, arguing she has a proven track record of governing and winning elections. “Conservative women are stepping up to lead in Minnesota and across the nation,” Nelson said this week, announcing that she got the backing of Winning for Women, a conservative-aligned national group that backs congressional women candidates. “Women are problem-solvers. We get the job done.”
“There is pent up frustration among women that they feel they are qualified candidates but they just aren’t picked by the establishment,” DeJournett said. “Now they’re saying, there is never going to be a time when they are going to pick me, so I am going to pick myself to run.”
Sinzdak said it’s challenging for anyone to beat establishment candidates, particularly incumbents, as many women are trying to do this cycle. “Some are certainly cautioning against this idea of the pink wave, tempering our expectations a bit about how many women are going to win their races this year,” she said.
“But so many more women are actually filing and crossing that boundary and throwing their names in the ring. You are seeing all these women saying, I’m not going to wait any more to be asked. It’s worth acknowledging that that is happening, whatever happens in this election cycle.”