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Colorado's newly elected Secretary of State Jena Griswold addresses the watch party for Colorado Democrats at the Westin Hotel in downtown Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette via AP

The Midterms Are a Reminder of How Far Women Have Come, and How Far We Still Need to Go

Voters elected a historic number of women in the 2018 midterms—both in Colorado and nationwide. Yet representation in the Centennial State's highest offices lags behind.

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Women made their mark in the 2018 election. Across the nation, women ran for congress, governor, and state legislative seats in unprecedented numbers, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Now there will be at least 100 women in the House—the largest number in history.

Colorado voters elected a historic number of women as well, including a female majority in the state House. In the 2019 session, the House could have as many as 33 women and the state Senate will have 12 women—six of whom were elected on November 6. “I am particularly inspired by the number of women and people of color who ran for office. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and women and people of color have truly fueled our victory tonight up and down the ballot,” said House Speaker-designate KC Becker on election night. Becker will be the third consecutive female Speaker of the House when she assumes the position in 2019.

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But the gains of Centennial State women failed to reach the state’s highest offices. After the midterms, Colorado is now one of just five U.S. states that has never elected a woman governor or U.S. Senator (down from seven in 2017). Three highly qualified women ran for governor in 2018, but none advanced to the general election, and of the 10 major party nominees who ran for statewide seats, only two—Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera and Secretary of State Jena Griswold, both Democrats—were women.

To date, only 23 women have ever been elected to state-level office in Colorado, says Amber McReynolds, executive director for the National Vote At Home Institute and Denver’s former director of elections. “We still have some work to do here,” she says.

While Griswold celebrated her historic win as Colorado’s first Democratic woman Secretary of State on Tuesday night, she also noted the scarcity of women at top levels of government. “As one of the few women elected to statewide office in the ‘Year of the Woman’ in Colorado, we made history—we broke a glass ceiling,” she said in her acceptance speech.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver), the only woman in Colorado’s seven-member congressional delegation, is also championing greater gender parity in her run for a Majority Whip, the third-highest leadership position in the House. (She’s currently the party’s Chief Deputy Whip.) If DeGette wins her bid, she would be only the second woman to hold the post. “Our return to the majority was powered by women voters across the country, and we need to repay their trust by adding women to Democrats’ leadership team,” DeGette wrote in a letter to her colleagues, announcing her intention to seek the position.

According to McReynolds, getting more women elected to statewide positions may require broader change to a political work culture that inherently favors men. “When you look at the political systems and structures, they were all designed by men,” she says. “Until we start to consider alternatives or have more women in certain offices to change what that looks like, it will be harder for women to step up.”

While women still lack statewide representation, their influence was felt in other ways in the midterms, including behind the scenes. “Women decided this election,” says newly elected state Senator Faith Winter. “But it wasn’t just the votes. We had more women volunteering in our campaigns, I had more women donate to me, and we had more women running.”

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But there was an added intensity driving even higher turnout of women in 2018, and that was fueled by the actions of President Donald Trump, says David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies. “We’ve never had the leader of the Republican Party actively out there, goading and insulting women,” he says. “That’s coming home to roost this year without question.”

Colorado women consistently vote in higher numbers than men. In the midterms, women returned 52 percent of ballots, compared to 47 percent returned by men, per data released on November 9. Democratic women were the largest voting bloc this election—returning 487,000 ballots (89,000 more than in 2014). Conversely, Republican women returned 389,000 ballots (7,000 more than 2014), and unaffiliated women returned about 421,000 ballots (117,000 more than in 2014), according to data released by Magellan Strategies on November 7.

“Unaffiliated women are without question the most powerful voter in Colorado,” says Flaherty. The rising tide of unaffiliated and Democratic women was a big part of the midterm story in 2018 and will likely continue into the 2020 presidential election, he added. “I have a hard time seeing that this trend is going to change,” said Flaherty. “It’s like a one-two punch.”

According to Griswold, at least, the movement for greater political parity is only getting started. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Although tonight does mark progress, the organizing and the pursuit of equality—it doesn’t stop here.”

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