Alison Lundergan Grimes may be Kentucky’s best known Democratic woman running for office this year. But she is hardly alone: 31 progressive women candidates, hand-picked and trained by Emerge Kentucky, have filed for elective office in the Bluegrass State this year.
The Democratic Party is banking on their success. For the first time in nearly 100 years, control of the Kentucky statehouse is up for grabs. Eight female candidates represent the Democratic Party’s best hope to retain the majority, no longer a safe bet as Republicans have increased their numbers in recent years.
Two dozen other Democratic women are running in city and county races. All of them graduated from a program run by Emerge Kentucky, part of Emerge America, a national organization working in 14 different states to prepare women to run for office.
“In a lot of cases, women have the edge,” said former Secretary of State Elaine Walker, a Democrat. “As usual, people are not happy with politics, and when you see a woman running, there’s this feeling like ‘oh, good, there’s not going to be an all boys’ network again.’”
An all-boys network is what Kentucky currently has in Washington.
Elisabeth Jensen is challenging freshman Republican Rep. Andy Barr for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. If Jensen wins, she will crack the state’s all-male representation in the House as Grimes hopes to do if she takes the senate seat currently held by Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The Democrats aren’t alone in understanding the importance of appealing to the influential female voter. After its 2012 losses, the Republican Party issued an “autopsy report” acknowledging that it needed to do a better job in winning over women voters alienated by male candidates who criticized women for using birth control or who engaged in sexist, offensive rhetoric.
James Young, Vice Chairman of the Kentucky Young Republican Federation, is guardedly optimistic that Republicans could take control of the House for the first time in a century. But he acknowledged that strong women candidates recruited by Emerge Kentucky pose a real challenge to his party.
“Let’s just say, it’s going to be close,” Young said.
Emerge Kentucky launched its first class in 2010 and has trained 85 women. In 2012, 11 Emerge graduates were on the ballot and nine won.
While Kentucky has a Democratic governor and a strong progressive streak, it has been solid red in Washington for a generation. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win in Kentucky was Bill Clinton. Both senators – McConnell and Rand Paul – are Republicans, as are five of Kentucky’s six representatives in the House.
But Sannie Overly, a three-term Democrat in the Kentucky House, said the state’s conservative reputation doesn’t tell the whole story. Gov. Steve Beshear implemented Obamacare and remains popular. In March, the state’s Democratic Attorney General refused to defend laws that prohibit gay marriage.
Still, Kentucky lags far behind other states in the number of women in office.
Kentucky’s only female governor, Democrat Martha Layne Collins, served from 1983-1987. The state ranks 37th in the number of women in its Legislature, where women currently hold just 26 of 138 seats. The state has never had a female senator and elected just two women in history to its U.S. House.