Both parties are working to woo women voters in this year’s midterms, and in doing so many men running for governor in blue and swing states are turning to an obvious tactic: picking a female running mate.
It could be a small-scale preview of what we might see in 2016 if either party has, yet again, a man topping its presidential ticket. But although picking female lieutenant governors is a smart strategic choice, when it comes to gender parity in politics the lieutenant governor slot hasn’t been a successful launching pad for higher office — particularly in the 17 states where gubernatorial candidates choose their running mates themselves, as opposed to those where candidates fight it out independently in primaries.
In the end, the offer is more often a consolation prize for diversity than a chance to climb atop the political ladder.
Of the female sidekicks to be featured in 2014 races, some are carryovers serving their first term as lieutenant governor while others are pairing up with challengers for the first time. Republican Lt. Govs. Kim Reynolds (Iowa), Mary Taylor (Ohio), and Rebecca Kleefisch (Wisconsin), plus Democrat Nancy Wyman of Connecticut, will campaign for reelection alongside Governors Terry Branstad, John Kasich, Scott Walker and Dan Malloy. In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s longtime political aide Tina Smith will team up with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in Minnesota. One female LG, Democrat Sheila Simon in Illinois, is stepping aside to run for state comptroller.
Among challengers, Illinois Republican Bruce Rauner has tapped Wheaton City Councilwoman Evelyn Sanguinetti. In Massachusetts, 2010 Republican nominee Charlie Baker has teamed up with former state Rep. Karyn Polito, and in Ohio Democrat Ed FitzGerald picked attorney and former congressional candidate Sharen Neuhardt. Democrat Paul Davis also paired up with financial planner Jill Docking in Kansas, and Mark Schauer recently added Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown to the Democratic ticket in Michigan. Republican Rob Astorino is reportedly considering state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis as his running mate in New York.
The strategic calculation for a lot of these choices is plain, but the long-term benefits for the running mates are less reliable. According to data from the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, of the 35 women who have served as American governors, 11 previously served as lieutenants, but just two of those women earned their deputy post as the result of being selected as a running mate. The other nine hail from states where they ran competitive races for the LG spot in their own right.
The position comes second to attorney general, when it comes to getting its female alumni into the top job. Erin Souza-Rezendes, the communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, points out that of the 20 female lieutenants who have run for governor, just 35 percent have won their races, while the success rate for female attorneys general is 50 percent. (But, only six women attorneys general have ever sought governorships.)
The lieutenant governor position has been most helpful at getting women the promotion “literally when the governor leaves,” CAWP director Debbie Walsh said. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, Olene Walker of Utah, Jane Swift of Massachusetts, and Jan Brewer of Arizona are just four recent examples of women who stepped into the top job when their predecessor left.
This possibility isn’t lost on those working to move women up the political pipeline. Republican Sue Lowden and Democrat Lucy Flores are competitive candidates for lieutenant governor in Nevada this year, a state where many wonder if Gov. Brian Sandoval will run for Senate in 2016, potentially leaving behind an opening for the state’s first female governor.
Instead, Walsh noted, “Attorneys general are more likely to make good gubernatorial candidates. It’s still a non-traditional job for women. They’re the chief law enforcement officer of the state, and there’s a presumed strength and toughness that comes with that job.” She pointed to Janet Napolitano, Jennifer Granholm, Christine Gregoire and Susana Martinez, a former district attorney, as examples of governors who fit this mold.
In the Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s 2004 report “Cracking the Code: Political Intelligence for Women Running for Governor,” one focus group participant put it this way: “Lieutenant governor is kind of like being the spouse.” Another called them “junior partners.” In a previous study from the foundation in 1998, voters ranked lieutenants second to attorneys general as the position they thought made women most qualified to be governor, followed by big city mayor and state legislator.
As members of both parties work to bring more women into the political fold this cycle, the running mate pick will remain an essential tool in their toolbox. But if history is any guide, choosing a female running mate looks more likely to help a male governor get elected than to set the stage for a female successor.