By Hastings Wyman –
There are eight gubernatorial races in the South this year. In seven of them, women are candidates. Some of them have a good shot at winning, others don’t. All of them, however, will make a significant impact on their state’s political environment.
Why this plethora of women candidates this particular year? Some of the reasons are to be found in recent events. “A lot of it is Trump,” says Deb Woolley, a former Nashville-based association executive. “It’s clearly the March on Washington (after Trump’s inauguration) and then the metoo movement,” says Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “This enthusiasm among women has gone from state to state. It started in Virginia last year. Also, the metoo movement,” says Natalie Davis, political science professor emerita at Birmingham Southern and a 1996 candidate for the US Senate.
Other reasons are long term. “More and more women have run for elective office and have reached the point where they have leadership roles,” thus have the experience to handle higher offices, says Richard Beardon, an Arkansas lobbyist and political consultant (R). “Also, there are more women voters; if they run on the issues, they can do pretty well.” Says MacManus, in Florida “18% more women than men are registered to vote.”
In addition, more women are going to college. “College is the training ground,” says MacManus. Women now constitute a majority on most campuses, and this is increasingly the case in law schools, which are a major source of officeholders down the road.
“There are more women in the state house that we’ve ever had,” says Chip Felkel, a South Carolina public affairs consultant. A big ground breaker in the Palmetto State was the election of Nikki Haley (R) as
governor in 2014. “Nikki Haley exceeded expectations for some people, and she exceeded expectations at the UN,” says Felkel, who adds, “Being a woman is not a big factor. People elected Haley twice.” Indeed, Felkel says “There is such a hardness in politics today that if a woman can handle herself on stage, she may have an advantage.”
In Alabama, both parties could nominate women for governor this year. Gov. Kay Ivey (R) succeeded to the office after the resignation of scandal-plagued Gov. Robert Bentley (R). She is favored in the primary and the General Election, but is not a lead-pipe cinch in either. “She’s got a lot of money,” says Davis. However, her primary opponent, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, “has a lot of money too.” He also represents a fast-growing part of the state. On the Democratic side, Sue Bell Cobb, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is favored to win the primary for governor. She’s facing Walt Maddox the mayor of Tuscaloosa. He is white, but is lining up black support, crucial in a Democratic Primary. “He could win,” says Davis. “He’s a techie. He’s very impressive.”
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) faces a primary battle with Jan Morgan, owner of a shooting range she once described as “a Muslim-free zone.” Hutchinson is an all but certain winner of the primary, but in the current political environment, she could get enough votes – 30%-plus – to embarrass the governor. There are no women running for governor as Democrats.
In Florida, the favorite for the Democratic nomination, and a strong prospect in November, is Gwen Graham, daughter of former governor and US senator Bob Graham. Graham served as the congresswoman for the Tallahassee-based 2nd District before redistricting favored the Republicans. Her main competition in the Democratic Primary is Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. Other Democrats running include Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Chris King. is also running. Graham and Levine lead the polls of Democratic voters. As for campaign finances. “Women have realized they have to give money,” says MacManus, citing Ruth’s List, a Florida version of Emily’s List.
Georgia Democrats have a choice between two women in the gubernatorial primary, former Minority House Leader Stacy Abrams and state Rep. Stacey Evans. Abrams is black and leans strongly to the left, including supporting the sandblasting of the Confederate sculptures from Stone Mountain. She has the support of civil rights veteran US Rep. John Lewis (D). Evans stresses her rural roots and her progressive record in the legislature. She’s been endorsed by former Gov. Roy Barnes (D). Abrams is favored in the primary, where African-American voters are a major factor, but Evans would probably be a stronger nominee in November. No women are running against Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in the Republican Primary.
In Oklahoma, where incumbent Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is term-limited, there are no women in either party running to succeed her.
In South Carolina, Catherine Templeton, a former state official, is one of four challengers to Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who succeeded to the governorship when Haley was appointed UN Ambassador. In a December survey, she polled second to McMaster, 21% to his 51%, suggesting she was his major opponent in the Republican Primary. Moreover, she has been a successful fundraiser. However, since then, Greenville businessman John Warren has entered the race. “Warren getting in the governor’s race says there are plenty of ‘outsiders’ [Templeton] hasn’t nailed down,” says Felkel. He also notes that Templeton “is hitting hard for the base, trying to make herself out as a Trumpian.” He opines, “I’m not sure that’s her vote,” noting that she was part of Jeb Bush’s campaign team in the state in 2016. There is also a woman running for governor in the Democratic Primary. Marguerite Willis, a prominent business lawyer and former First Lady of Florence, has entered the race late. Her website features a rusty red pickup truck with a “Willis for governor” bumper sticker on its bumper. Willis faces a tough primary battle with frontrunner, state Rep. James E. Smith. Longtime Democratic activist Phil Noble is also running.
Tennessee has two powerful women among the four Republican candidates competing in the August 2 gubernatorial primary. US Rep. Diane Black (R), chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a former nurse and one of the wealthiest members of Congress. She represents the 6th District, which covers suburbs that stretch around Nashville from the north around to the south. It is a heavy media district, which has helped her name ID. State House Speaker Beth Harwell had high visibility in the state legislature where, notes Woolley, she did a good job of altering the rules so she could control the caucus and get things accomplished. There would have been three women politicos running for governor had state Sen. Mae Beavers (R) stayed in the race, but she bowed out. There’s no guarantee either Black or Harwell will win the primary, as two influential men, Randy Boyd, former economic development commissioner under Gov. Bill Haslam (R), and successful businessman Bill Lee are running. There are no women running for the Democratic nomination. Coincidentally, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), a strong conservative, is running for the US Senate seat currently held by retiring US Sen. Bob Corker (R). So this November could see two women heading the Republican ballot in the Volunteer State.
In Texas, only a perennial candidate is challenging incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in tomorrow’s Republican Primary on Tuesday, March 6. The Democratic Primary, however, features a contest between Lupe Valdez, the first openly Lesbian sheriff in the nation, and Andrew White, a successful businessman and son of former Gov. Mark White. Valdez will draw support from Latino voters as well as from party liberals. White, a more centrist Democrat, will look for backing among Democrats who believe he has a better chance of defeating Abbott. At this point, polls show Abbott winning in the General Election.