Women have had a better track record than men at holding governorships over the last half century

As discussed in a Smart Politics report published earlier this week, eight of the nine sitting women governors in the country are running for another term in 2022.

While some of these governors will face potential bumpy roads during the primary (New York’s Kathy Hochul) or general elections (Kansas’ Laura Kelly, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer), history has nonetheless been quite kind to women during their gubernatorial reelection campaigns – winning each of the last 16 contests since 2005.

By point of comparison, 17 male governors have been unseated at the ballot box during this period, with incumbent men winning 79 of 96 contests overall (82.3 percent).

The last woman to lose a gubernatorial seat was Utah Republican Olene Walker in 2004. Walker succeeded Mike Leavitt after he was tapped by George W. Bush to head the EPA in 2003.

Governor Walker failed to win her party’s nomination or advance to the GOP primary at the May 2004 state convention.

Each of the next 16 women won their bids for another term – eight Democrats and eight Republicans.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, only three women were elected governor – Democrats Ma Ferguson of Texas (1924), Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming (1924), and Lurleen Wallace of Alabama (1966).

But since the 1970s, women governors have been decidedly more successful at holding their office than have their male counterparts.

Over the last half-century, female governors have successfully defended 24 of their 28 bids for another term, or 85.7 percent.

Male governors, meanwhile, have won 208 of 298 campaigns, or just 69.8 percent of the time.

The last non-elevated female governor to lose a gubernatorial race was Texas Democrat Ann Richards in 1994 – losing by 7.6 points to George W. Bush.

During the current 16-election winning streak for the office, women have defeated their opponents by an average of 14.5 points. Just five of these were competitive races:

  • 2008 (Washington): Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Dino Rossi by 6.5 points
  • 2014 (New Hampshire): Democrat Maggie Hassan beat Walt Havenstein by 5.0 points
  • 2016 (Oregon): Elevated Democrat Kate Brown defeated Bud Pierce by 7.2 points
  • 2018 (Iowa): Elevated Republican Kim Reynolds edged Fred Hubbel by 2.7 points
  • 2018 (Oregon): Democrat Kate Brown beat Knute Buehler by 6.4 points

In addition to Ann Richards and Olene Walker, four other incumbents have had losing reelection campaigns: Wyoming Democrat Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1926 (lost general), Texas Democrat Ma Ferguson in 1926 (lost nomination), Washington Democrat Dixy Lee Ray in 1980 (lost nomination), and Nebraska Republican Kay Orr in 1990 (lost general).

Orr’s 0.7-point loss to Ben Nelson stands as the closest general election involving a woman governor in U.S. history.

The biggest blowout belongs to New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen who defeated Jay Lucas by 35.2 points in 1998 en route to a second term.

To date, 11 women could not or chose not to seek another term:

  • One died in office: Alabama Democrat Lurleen Wallace (1970 cycle)
  • One was term-limited: Kentucky Democrat Martha Collins (1987)
  • One resigned mid-term: Alaska Republican Sarah Palin (2010 cycle)
  • One was elevated after the gubernatorial election: Ohio Republican Nancy Hollister (2000 cycle)
  • Seven retired: Arizona Democrat Rose Mofford (1991), Kansas Democrat Joan Finney (1994), Oregon Democrat Barbara Roberts (1994), Massachusetts Republican Jane Swift (2002), Montana Republican Judy Martz (2004), Louisiana Democrat Kathleen Blanco (2007), and North Carolina Democrat Bev Perdue (2012)

The nine women currently serving as governor across the country matches an all-time high water mark previously reached in 2004, 2007, and 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. Flickertail-Pembina on October 29, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Of the eight sitting female governors seeking additional terms, Kay Ivey of AL seems to have the best odds of attaining it (Noem of SD is under an ethics cloud; Hochul of NY, should she even survive the intramural struggle, will be burdened by the various scandals of her co-partisan predecessors extending back to Eliot Spitzer, and may be hindered by the long reign of her party on the post dating back to 2007).

    Two populous states had elevated governors who were essentially finishing out the terms of their predecessors. One was in FL, where Kenneth Hood “Buddy” MacKay (jr), upon the death of Governor Chiles, served as caretaker governor from 12 of 12 1998 to 5 of 01 1999. The other was in OH, where Nancy Putnam Hollister served from 31 of 12 1998 to 11 of 01 1999, when Governor Voinovich resigned the post in order to take the Class 3 senate seat to which he was elected to (alternately, he could have served out the term and taken the senate seat in mid-January).