Liz Watson, a first-time candidate, captured the Democratic nomination in a Southern Indiana congressional district on Tuesday. Laura Collins donated $100 to Watson’s campaign and plans to give more. Women account for 31 percent of the money going to House candidates, their highest share of the donor pool in any election cycle, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in federal races. | AP file photo via The Herald-Times

Uptick in women’s political donations ahead of midterm elections

WASHINGTON — The number of women donating to political campaigns is climbing to new heights ahead of this year’s midterm elections, as women swarm to politics and run in record numbers for Congress and other elected posts around the country.

Women account for 31 percent of the money going to House candidates, their highest share of the donor pool in any election cycle, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in federal races. By comparison, women gave 27 percent of the money that went to House contenders during the last midterm elections in 2014.

“These are record numbers, and it’s consistent with the sense that there’s rising momentum for women on a number of fronts in this election cycle,” said Sheila Krumholz, who runs the center.

Nowhere is that more evident than in House races, where a record 391 women candidates, most of them Democrats, are competing. That tops a previous high of 298 female House candidates reached in 2012, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

At the state level, 43 women have filed as candidates in governors’ races, breaking a record set in 1994 when 34 women ran, according to Rutgers’ tally.

The 2016 presidential election was a wake-up call for many Democratic women, who were disappointed that Hillary Clinton failed in her quest to become the nation’s first female president and dismayed that Republican Donald Trump, a political novice, captured the White House, said Julie McClain Downey of EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights.

“There was a one-two punch: ‘We came so close, and she lost to that guy?’ ” Downey said, describing the emotions of Clinton supporters. Now, she said, a growing number of women activists are saying: “ ‘If that guy can be our president, I can definitely run for the school board.’ ”

More than 36,000 women have reached out to EMILY’s List about running for office since the presidential election. By comparison, the organization fielded just 920 similar requests during the two-year, 2016 election cycle, Downey said.

Among the candidates endorsed by EMILY’s List this year: Liz Watson, a first-time candidate who on Tuesday night captured the Democratic nomination in a Southern Indiana congressional district that includes Bloomington. She’ll face first-term GOP Rep. Trey Hollingsworth in November.

Watson, who worked on labor policy as a congressional staffer in Washington, has the backing of more than two dozen labor groups. But she’s also had a breakthrough with female donors, drawing on women for more than 62 percent of the money she raised last year, according to the center’s analysis. (By comparison, 52 percent of the money donated to Clinton came from women.)

Those energized female supporters do more than donate, Watson told USA TODAY in an interview before this week’s primary. “A lot of people don’t have that much to give, but they also door knock or they bake cookies” for campaign events, she said.

Take, for example, Laura Collins, a digital communications specialist. She’s donated $100 to Watson’s campaign and plans to give more. But the 40-year-old also volunteered for about 20 hours a week on the campaign last year, helping build the campaign’s website and social media presence in between working, raising her four-year-old daughter and starting a local chapter of the National Organization for Women.

She said Trump’s election left her filled “with anxiety” about women’s rights and worried that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions, could be upended by conservative, Trump-appointed justices.

“I felt like the foundation I thought I was standing on was crumbling,” Collins said. “I thought that by voting in every election, I was doing enough, but this slapped me in the face. It wasn’t enough.”

So far, the number of Democratic women running has surged ahead of Republicans. Rutgers’ tally shows 291 Democratic women running for the House this year, a nearly 97 percent increase from 148 female Democratic candidates in 2016.

So far, 100 Republican women are for the House running this year, up from 79 two years ago.

Winning for Women, an organization founded this year as a conservative counterweight to EMILY’s List, aims to change that. Officials with the group, which operates a political action committee and a non-profit arm that does not disclose its donors, won’t discuss overall fundraising totals, but say 94 percent of its money comes from women.

It has backed a slate of more than two dozen candidates in the midterms, including Debbie Lesko, the Republican who won last month’s special election in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District and Carol Miller, a West Virginia state delegate who beat out a crowded field Tuesday night to win the Republican nomination for a House seat.

“Getting more women to run in the numbers we’d like to see isn’t going to happen overnight,” said Andrea Bozek, a longtime Republican communications strategist who serves as a spokeswoman for the group. But she said the organization is determined to create an infrastructure among Republicans “to build lasting momentum for these women candidates.”

For all the recent gains among women, however, men dominate politics. About 1,300 men are running for the House — more than three times the number female office-seekers.

“Women have increased their proportion” of candidates running for the House, “but more men are running too,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

Men also give far more money that women political contributors.

The top 10 political donors of the 2018 campaign have contributed a combined $74.9 million to super PACs, which can accept donations of any size. All of them are men, led by led by Republican shipping executive Richard Uihlein and Democratic former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

“There still are more Tom Steyers than Tammy Steyers,” said Krumholz.

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