As Colorado officially kicked off the 2018 elections last week with the caucus, there’s one notable difference among our gubernatorial candidates. For the first time in 20 years, Colorado has an opportunity to elect a woman governor—and to smash the state’s highest glass ceiling.
Although the Centennial State was one of the first to give women the right to vote, our progress hasn’t kept pace with the times. Colorado is one of just seven states that has never elected a woman governor or U.S. senator. But the tide is changing, and not just in our home state.
Women are running for office in record numbers nationwide. That surge includes 81 women running for governor (51 Democrats and 30 Republicans), according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Currently, just six women hold the role. “What we’re seeing is a certain level of energy among women, not just in running for office but in all types of political engagement,” says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science and a scholar at CAWP.
Colorado already has one of the highest percentages of women in our state legislature. So why haven’t we elected a woman as governor or U.S. senator? One theory is that voters may be more willing to elect women to legislative positions, which are perceived as collaborative, rather than chief executive roles. “A lot of the problem for women running for governor has just been that people can’t envision them as the CEO of the state,” says former Lt. Governor Gail Schoettler (D), pointing out that just 5 percent of CEOs at S&P 500 companies—and 12 percent of governors—are women. Schoettler was the last woman to run for governor in Colorado, losing a close race—by less than 7,800 votes—to Republican Bill Owens in 1998. (Schoettler will be inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame later this month.)
The three women running for Colorado’s highest office in 2018 boast powerful resumes. They’ve served in executive roles and won statewide elections. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman (R) became Colorado’s chief law enforcer in 2014 and served as deputy attorney general for 10 years prior. Cary Kennedy (D) was elected Colorado treasurer in 2006 and, after losing a 2010 reelection bid, served as Denver’s deputy mayor and Chief Financial Officer from 2011 to 2017. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne (D) is also the state’s Chief Operating Officer and has executive-level business experience as the former Colorado president of Kaiser Permanente.
“What we are seeing is women moving into top positions because they earned it, they have the experience, and they are the most qualified,” says Kennedy.
If last Tuesday’s precinct caucuses are any predictor, Coloradans are more than ready to elect a female governor. Kennedy scored an early victory, winning 50 percent of the vote in a Democratic preference poll, with Rep. Jared Polis (Boulder) coming in second at 33 percent. (Lynne is taking an alternate route by collecting voters’ signatures to earn a place on the ballot. Republicans, on the other hand, hold their own caucuses, but do not take an official preference poll).
While Colorado’s female gubernatorial candidates represent different parties and political ideologies, they are all encouraged by the increase in women’s political participation. Kennedy, who has a strong focus on education, says she sees a difference on the campaign trail this year. “This is my third statewide campaign, and it feels different because of the activism and the energy I am seeing,” she says. “It’s going to change the face of politics in our country.”
Kennedy’s priorities include making healthcare affordable and accessible, protecting Colorado in the face of growth, and supporting policies that benefit women and families. She notes the increase in younger women running for office, many of whom are working moms with small children. “This is the new face of leadership,” Kennedy says. “It’s important that we have that representation in our elected leaders.”
Women are bringing great energy to the 2018 races, says Lynne. “There are more women running for office, not only in Colorado but also around the country, and I think it’s a long overdue change,” she says. Lynne says her personal experience raising three children as a single working mother resonates with many parents on the campaign trail, and informs her focus on issues like healthcare and affordable housing.
Lynne believes executive experience is essential for the next governor. “I really feel it’s important given what’s going on in Washington that the state have a really strong governor who knows what they’re doing, because there are just repeated attempts from Washington at all levels to roll back things that many of us have worked on for decades.”
Coffman, a conservative, says the surge in women candidates is positive because it’s important to have balance in government. “To have three women candidates for governor in the same year in Colorado is exceptional,” she says. “It wasn’t a popular theory to assert given my party, but the fact that we didn’t have the first woman president elected in 2016, when a lot of women were hoping that would happen, may have in fact motivated more women to decide to run for office.”
Coffman’s focus includes safe schools, access to healthcare, and supporting rural communities. Among Republicans she is also moderate on some social issues, such as LGBT rights. Coffman received support from women outside her party in 2014, and says she sees similar interest from political independents this year.
All three candidates see a much higher level of support in 2018 compared to Schoettler’s bid for governor in 1998, when many people refused to back her financially. “They said you’re a woman and you can’t win, so I’m not going to write you a check,” Schoettler recalls.
After her loss, Schoettler founded Electing Women, a federal political action committee (PAC) to raise funds for pro-choice women running for governor and U.S. senator around the country. “The goal is to have the most visible positions in the state held by a woman because then it becomes more normal to see women in leadership roles,” she says. Like the increase in women candidates, the number of female donors is also growing: Last year, Electing Women had about 35 members. This year membership more than doubled to 85 women.
When they win, women in leadership positions tend to be more inclusive, which encourages different perspectives, says Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran. “When you have women in positions of power and decision-making, you get better results,” she says. “I believe that women have something to add that is very significant.”
Breaking Colorado’s highest glass ceiling could also encourage more women to reach new heights, the candidates say. “I would like all young girls growing up in our state to see themselves as leaders in their own lives,” says Kennedy.
After she decided to run for governor, Coffman’s sister gave her a necklace with a piece of shattered glass. “It really brought home to me that it would have significant import to have a woman governor,” she says. Representation is important, adds Lynne, both in how Coloradans see themselves and in how others see our state. “To have a different-looking portrait as you walk into the Capitol I think says something to everyone,” she says.