Herald Times: Women bowl over male counterparts in Monroe County primary elections

Each time a woman stepped toe-to-toe with a man in Monroe County's 2018 Democratic primary election, she came away the victor.

Monroe County voters didn't just favor women over men in all six of the contested races in the Democratic Party's primary — they made sure most of those races were decided by a large margin.

Ann Birch, president of the League of Women Voters of Bloomington-Monroe County, doesn't think the tipping scales came naturally.

f it had been nature, it would’ve happened a long time ago. I think it's nurture. I think it happened because of the very distinctive efforts of a lot of people," Birch said. "It is just steady, constant work, and I think we’re seeing those results."

Two county-level races in particular showed Democrats selecting female candidates to become their party's nominees over incumbent male opponents who had a legacy of public service.

Voters gave Lee Jones a wide margin over Patrick Stoffers, a three-term county commissioner and incumbent seeking renomination to his District 1 seat.

"In a lot of voters' minds, there’s less power in incumbency," said Mark Fraley, chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Party. "It really goes to show the strength of women in the Democratic Party."

Fraley was quick to mention that Jones, who received 72.5 percent of the vote, has been a county council member for the past six years and is a recognized name in the Democratic Party.

In the race for Monroe Circuit Court 2 judge, Christine Talley Haseman edged proven vote-getter Chris Gaal, who was elected Monroe County prosecutor three times. Fraley said the closest contested race of the night, which was decided by just 27 votes, may have been tight due to a combination of factors.

He noted that Haseman served as a judge previously, but as a Republican appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"Ultimately, I don’t want to make any assumption or come off any way as saying, if you’re a woman, you’re going to win," Fraley said. "You’re talking about a combination of factors, including everything that comes with women being more engaged. It certainly can play a substantial role when it comes to those races."

Of the other four contested Democratic races for countywide offices, Kate Wiltz (county council), Erika Oliphant (prosecutor), Darcie Fawcett (circuit judge) and Catherine Stafford (circuit judge) won their party's nominations by a range of from 60 percentage points to 33 percentage points over their male competitors.

Another high-profile race, for the Indiana 9th Congressional District nomination, had voters choosing Democratic candidate Liz Watson over her male opponents by a large margin — more than 42 percentage points.

One of the areas where women's power at the polls really comes into focus can be seen farther down the ballot, Fraley said, where voters may not be as familiar with the details of a particular race. It's there they might vote according to a more arbitrary reasoning.

"People will go in there (the polls) engaged on a particular set of races, then go down the ballot to find things they’re not as familiar with and default on certain categories," Fraley said. "Gender is a powerful one. I think that is a factor that is at work, though, I’m not saying that’s a primary factor."

Fraley's point was evident in votes cast for precinct committeemen and delegates to the state convention. Women on the ballot dominated their male opponents at both levels.

Birch, from the League of Women Voters, credits this year's wave of female nominees to the momentum brought on by women who had previously forged a path into politics. She said while this year's showing was great, the sight of a woman at the helm shouldn't be surprising.

"The number of women coming out for elections and running for office just reflects general societal changes," Birch said. "Women running for office is no longer a shocking thing, though, there was a time when it was. The results are just a sign of how far women have come."

At this point in the swing toward a more proportionately representative government, Indiana University Professor of Political Science Marjorie Hershey said being a woman in politics might be advantageous. Voters upset with the current political demographics may view women as welcome political outsiders.

"The reason we don’t have more women in office is largely because of social norms," Hershey said.

Some women have to first get beyond societal expectations to convince themselves they would be good candidates. Hershey said women tend to run for office later in life than their male counterparts, in part due to responsibilities related to child care and other family concerns.

Fraley noted female candidates are often subject to different types of scrutiny about child-rearing than men who run for office.

"I think it’s perfectly legitimate to have family concerns that might prevent someone from running for office. I just don’t think that should affect women more than men," Fraley said.

Though the Republican primary saw fewer contested races where voters chose women over men, female candidates still clinched nominations about 55 percent of the time. Forty-three percent of Republican candidates in the general election will be women.

William Ellis, Monroe County Republican Party chairman, said his party has long done a great job of targeting candidates for their quality, not their sex.

"We target the best quality candidates, and I’m so glad to know we’ve got so many quality candidates that are women," Ellis said. "We’ve had women in offices before it was cool. This is just normal course of business for us. Republicans vote for the candidate, and different genders or race doesn’t seem to matter as much."

Ellis credited the Democratic Women's Caucus with being a powerhouse in this primary election. He said the organization's endorsements and active recruitment of female candidates are likely why there were so many Democratic women stepping up to seek public office.

No matter the party, Birch said the greater prevalence of women running for and winning political power is progress, but it's not the end.

"The one thing to keep in mind is, as great as this is for women," she said, "it is not just women who are underrepresented."