How women’s representation in the Pa. General Assembly could change after the 2018 election

Right now, 48 lawmakers in Harrisburg are women.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
MJ Slaby

As far as Jennie Sweet-Cushman can tell, 2018 is a record year for women running for office.

The exception, however, is that filings from Republican women are actually slightly down, meaning the surge is coming from Democrats, said Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

She credited the increase in candidates to election of Donald Trump and movements like the Women’s March and Time’s Up, adding that people are looking at things like #MeToo and saying, “maybe this wouldn’t happen if there were more women around.”

“Women are seeing it as an opportunity to create change,” Sweet-Cushman said, adding that they are taking the initiative to go where the power is.

No matter how many women are working on grassroots campaigns and as volunteers and staffers that doesn’t give them a seat at the table to change the power structure, Sweet-Cushman said.

Pennsylvania has been criticized for its lack of women lawmakers. Representation 2020 Project, a national organization aiding female political candidates, deemed Pennsylvania as one of four states to get an “F” ranking in female political representation. Of the 28-member Harrisburg delegation from Allegheny County, State Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, a Democrat, is the only woman.

Sweet-Cushman previously pointed to a strong “good old boys” network in Pennsylvania supporting incumbency and the money and recruiting that comes with it for male candidates.

Potential for change

But how could the record number of women candidates running in Tuesday’s primary change the November ballot and the number of women lawmakers after winners are sworn in?

To find out, The Incline used the rosters for the Pa. House and Pa. Senate on the General Assembly website, as well as the state candidate database. Candidates who filed but withdrew per the database are not included in the totals. The database doesn’t include independent and third-party candidates, who have until Aug. 1 to declare their candidacy.

Here’s the current General Assembly.

Of the 41 women in the Pa. House, 20 are Democrats and 21 are Republicans. In the state Senate, it’s three Democrats and four Republicans.

Here’s the breakdown of candidates on Tuesday’s primary ballots.

On May 15, voters in all 203 Pa. House districts and in 25 state Senate districts will go to the polls.

Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Among women running for state House seats, there are 84 Democrats and 37 Republicans.

In some cases, women candidates are running against other women. The Democratic primary for District 176 is between two women candidates. And in District 190, the Democratic primary has three candidates — two women and one man. In the Republican primary for House District 82, there are nine candidates, including three women.

So the most women candidates that can win Tuesday’s primary is 82 Democrats and 35 Republicans. If this were to happen, women Democrats and women Republicans would face off in 17 house districts in the general, so the maximum number of women candidates that could be elected to the House is 100.

Here’s how the House would change if those 100 women were elected.

Pennsylvania Senate

Of the 20 women running for Pa. Senate, 12 are Democrats and eight are Republicans.

But four of them are running against other women candidates. Stephanie Walsh and Lindsey Williams are each running for the Democratic nod in the 38th Pa. Senate District, which represents areas north of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. Meanwhile, in the 28th District, which includes parts of York County, two Republicans, Kristin Phillips-Hill and Julie Dietz Wheeler, are facing off.

If every state Senate race with at least one woman candidate had a woman advance to the General Election in November, there would be seven GOP women and 11 Democrat women on the ballot. Women Democrats and women Republicans would face off in three senate districts in the general, so the maximum number of women candidates that could be elected to the Senate is 15.

Unlike the House, not all members of the Senate are up for election in 2018. So that means two women state senators will return after the election to finish their terms and add to the maximum number of women candidates elected.

So the state Senate would change like this.

Measuring success for women candidates

The actual outcome will be between 28 women advancing to the November election — the districts with only women candidate(s) running — and 115, if all women candidates win on Tuesday.

Here’s a look at how many seats are swing seats, or seats where women and men could face off and how many seats will likely be filled by men or women.

To calculate the “likely men” numbers, The Incline added lawmakers not up for election to unopposed men candidates and races where all the candidates are men. The same formula was used to find the “likely women” numbers. These numbers could change if candidates are added to the ballot for November.

So what number would be considered a success for women’s representation in Harrisburg? There are a few ways to look at it, Sweet-Cushman said.

From a representation perspective, it should be 50-50, she said. But there’s also a lot of discussion about what number would achieve critical mass, she said.

“I like to say, ‘What if it was 80 percent women?’” she said, adding she wonders how that would change views on political leadership.

“We are so socialized to see [politics] as tough and tumble and combative sport… Do we think about politics in a different way when there are more women in it? It’s tough to answer that now because there are so few women.”

With more women elected to office, Sweet-Cushman said she’s curious to see how procedure changes in the legislature. In general, women are more collaborative, something that’s been deteriorating in politics.

So if the ratio of Democrats to Republicans doesn’t change, but the ratio of men to women does, will there be more bipartisan work? And how would the rules around sexual harassment change?

But there’s also a potential for change just by having more women run, regardless of if they win, she said.

If this is a sustained movement, then there will be more women who stay engaged and later run for U.S. Congress or Senate or Pennsylvania governor. It would be in the best interest of the parties to take note of the women running and invest in them for the future, she added.

But it will take a few election cycles to see if 2018 was a tipping point.

Right now, it’s not about being the team that’s in power, but rather building the “farm team.” she said.