• Fenna Milbauer

It's Not a Phase: Incumbent Women Fight to Win

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

From athletes to politicians, everyone loves an underdog story. Women, fortunately, are no exception to this rule of thumb: the woman who is running and won against all odds will always pull at the heartstrings of voters. But what about those women who fought, get elected, and are now running again? Maybe against a younger person, or perhaps another woman? Our instinct to focus on the newcomer is contested, and we must ask ourselves: What about the incumbent woman?

Image: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Incumbent races are traditionally challenging, regardless of the candidate. Candidates no longer have that first time momentum which brought new exciting energy into the campaign. Rather, candidates must defend the choices that they made in office and attempt to retain voters’ interest. It is no secret that gender stereotypes comprise many of the barriers women face while running for office-- at any level. A report in 2014 shows that stereotypes are even worse for incumbent women, especially for Democratic women. “Gender stereotypes are strongest in races with incumbents and for Democratic women, party and gender stereotypes are negatively reinforced” (1). Not only is gender an issue within these races, but other aspects of candidates’ identity, such as race, religion, or sexual orientation might be targeted during the campaign.

The 2018 elections saw a diverse blue wave of elected Democratic women from around the country, and many of these women are now the incumbent candidates. From this group of freshwomen in Washington came the Squad, a diverse group of young progressive congresswomen and a GOP nightmare. This media-magnet group is composed of Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Each of these women has her own unique and exciting backstory, and Ilhan Omar is no exception. She is the first Somali-American Muslim in Congress and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota. Omar represents many firsts, but now she is fighting her second campaign for Congress. She was recently re-elected during the primary and hopefully will retain her seat in Congress.

Image from: Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

However, it’s important to note the tactics used against Omar. Super PAC-backed Antone Melton-Meaux was Omar's Democratic primary challenger, casting himself to be ‘down to earth’ and as someone who avoids the spotlight and controversy. Omar is extremely popular on the left, aggressively advocating for progressive policies, which has made her the center of attacks from centrist Democrats and conservatives. Melton-Meaux capitalized on this by accepting money from several organizations working vigorously to replace Omar with a more centerist candidate. Melton-Meaux raised over $3.2 million in one quarter, spending most on attack ads (2). Although Omar has not entered the fight against her Republican opponent, this leg of her campaign was in many respects more challenging. She was attacked using the same tactics Republicans would have used during the general election from her fellow Democrat. But what makes her candidacy so important?

Omar represents a growing population in America that is underrepresented. Brown and Black Hijabi women across the country who, up until recently had never seen a woman like Omar in any influential political position. Moreover, Omar represents and fights for progressive ideals, advocating for and introducing policy about a living wage, affordable housing, universal healthcare, student loan debt forgiveness, the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These are all policies and ideas that many young women in the Democratic base support. Her re-election is key to these two voting blocks. Omar represents a changing America, losing a strong female candidate would mean ignoring more than half of the country.

Across the country, there are female incumbents who represent their communities and the issues that matter most to them. For example, Lucy McBath of Georgia, who is a mother-turned-activist, then turned politician with a platform centralized around gun control after the tragic killing of her son. In 2018, McBath narrowly defeated her challenger Karen Handel, whom she is now facing again (3). When women run against each other, the dynamic of the race shifts. The opponent can no longer make gender the central issue, therefore bringing issues, a candidate’s record or background, and party affiliation to the forefront of the campaign.

Image: Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

We should still be aware that stereotypes still play a role, especially in races between Democrat and Republican women. Incumbent races are not always what they seem on the surface, the most challenging races are unconventional. Of course, Democratic women who are contested by a Republican man face an obvious uphill battle. But when Democratic women are pitted against each other, or against a fellow male Democrat, the dynamic alters. It is important that we focus on these incumbent races as it is crucial to solidify progressive female representation throughout the US political system. This will show that the diverse female-led blue wave we saw in 2018 is not a phase or experiment, but becomes the new normal.


  1. https://books.google.nl/books?id=THJVAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT129&lpg=PT129&dq=incumbent+women&source=bl&ots=akeSQMjqWt&sig=ACfU3U3Jri7FPwZ5hU1YSEH-l2pz2f3IxA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi55KT64ZHrAhVrMewKHQFhAswQ6AEwAnoECAYQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

  2. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/11/primary-day-omar-minnesota-georgia-wisconsin-vermont-393389

  3. https://www.reporternewspapers.net/2020/06/11/6th-congressional-district-race-heads-to-handel-mcbath-rematch/

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