Is This the Year Women Break the Rules and Win?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory may be more one-off than wave, but her stunning win has raised hopes for other female candidates.

State Representative Ilhan Omar, second left, a Minneapolis Democrat running for the U.S. House, is hugged after her moving speech against the Muslim ban Tuesday in Minneapolis.CreditRichard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared in the opening of her campaign video that went viral this spring. And women like her weren’t supposed to win primary challenges against incumbents, particularly powerful ones like Representative Joseph Crowley, who had been mentioned as a potential House speaker.

But she did. So is this the year that women break the rules — and win?

This year’s midterm elections have produced a surge of women like her across the country: progressive candidates running outsider campaigns powered by strong personal narratives and women’s activism that began with massive marches the day after President Trump’s inauguration and has grown through protests against gun violence, the stripping away of the Affordable Care Act and immigration policies that divide families.

But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York’s 14th Congressional District Tuesday may be more one-off than wave. The same night she won by 15 points, another woman of color, Saira Rao, lost her energetic bid from the left in a primary against Rep. Diane DeGette in Colorado. Three weeks earlier, so did another, Tanzie Youngblood, in an open primary against a conservative Democrat in New Jersey.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met with reporters and New Yorkers who stopped to congratulate her on Wednesday, a day after her primary win.CreditAnnie Tritt for The New York Times

“Yes, we are in this year where the rules seem to have gone out the door, but I’m still quite cautious,” said Wendy Smooth, a professor of gender and political science at Ohio State University. “We can say that there are some unique stories that could resonate but whether or not they win, it’s ‘politics is local.’”

The conditions in New York were near perfect. The district had been redrawn so that its voters look more like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, whose mother is Puerto Rican, than Mr. Crowley, who is white. The state divided its primary — moving the more high-profile contest for governor to September — allowing a strong turnout by activist groups to make a huge difference. Mr. Crowley, a 10-term congressman, didn’t take the race seriously, sending a surrogate to stand in his place at a debate. And Ms. Ocasio-Cortez made a compelling pitch.

Women Who Might Win

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s win immediately raised comparisons with and hopes for Ayanna Pressley, running in a Democratic primary against another 10-term congressman, Michael Capuano, of Massachusetts. (Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shouted out to Ms. Pressley in her victory speech.) Massachusetts is a machine state and Mr. Capuano has strong labor support — but then, people said the same in New York.

Lucy McBath speaks at an event in New York City in April.CreditDia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

One district over from that race is Brianna Wu, challenging Rep. Stephen Lynch from the left. And before the Massachusetts primaries in September, there is Lucy McBath, who became an anti-gun activist after her son’s murder, in a July 24 runoff to be the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s Sixth District.

Other women to watch include Rashida Tlaib, bidding to be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress in Michigan’s 13th District, an opening created by the resignation of another longtime Democrat power broker, John Conyers Jr., in a sexual harassment scandal.

Rashida TlaibCreditTony Eggert, Three Lyons Creative

Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American state legislator, is running in the Democratic primary on August 14 for Minnesota’s Fifth District, an open seat that, like the ones Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Ms. Tlaib are seeking to fill, is solidly Democratic. She has attracted progressive activism locally and national support from immigrant-rights groups newly mobilized against President Trump’s travel ban, which blocks most travelers from Somalia.

The bigger questions are about Democratic women running in places that are historically Republican — and that’s most Democratic women running this year.

Stacey Abrams has created excitement around the possibility of electing the nation’s first black female governor — in Georgia, no less. But yes, Georgia, where white voters have been stingy about supporting black candidates and voters have dashed the hopes of a string of promising Democrats for governor.

New Jersey’s 11th District has been solidly Republican for the last 20 years. But Donald Trump won it by only a small margin in 2016, and Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic nominee, has amassed an impressive campaign war chest. A Monmouth University poll this week shows Democrats more excited than Republicans about the race, suggesting that Ms. Sherrill could win on the strength of newly energized resistance groups. (That energy helped push the incumbent, Rodney Frelinghuysen, into retirement.)

Where Victory Might Be Harder

Elsewhere the path to victory is steeper, because the races are against incumbents, who historically almost always win.

Kara Eastman with her campaign manager Ben Onkka, in Omaha, Neb., during the primary election.CreditNati Harnik/Associated Press

Kara Eastman, who won an outsider campaign against a former congressman in the Democratic primary in Nebraska’s second district, is now running against a Republican incumbent protected by gerrymandering.

Closer to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Liuba Grechen Shirley beat the Democratic Party establishment candidate by 16 points in the primary Tuesday for a seat on Long Island. But now she faces Representative Peter King, who has been in office for 25 years and routinely wins by double digits.

Still, Ms. Grechen Shirley notes that Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration, and possibly in energy.

“I had a press conference outside of King’s office and a man came up to me and said, ‘My wife voted for you. I am a Republican, so I couldn’t vote in the primary but I am going to vote for you in November and I’d like to give you a donation.’”

“People have had enough,” Ms. Grechen Shirley said.

Rebecca Katz, a senior strategist to Cynthia Nixon, who is hoping the Ocasio-Cortez victory foretells victory in her from-the-left challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the September primary, predicted a wave big enough to beat many other presumably safe incumbents.

“I think there is something new about women challengers that is different this year,” Ms. Katz said. “There is a hunger for a different type of perspective. The cycle started being about women’s health, then it was gun safety, then keeping families together. All along it’s been moms and women driving it.”

Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, has been tempering hopes for a “pink wave” this year because so many women are running uphill. But she also points out that in last year’s elections for the Virginia House of Delegates, 30 women ran as challengers, and 30 percent of them won. Just 7 percent of the 24 male challengers did.

“There’s something percolating,” she said.

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