In Pennsylvania primary, a test for 'pink wave' with record number of women running

Experts urge caution as expectations for the "pink wave" rise.

There currently are no women representing Pennsylvania in Washington — and the state has never elected a female U.S. senator or governor — but there are more than 20 women across the state hoping Tuesday will kick off their chances to change that - a test of the so-called "pink wave."

While Tuesday could bring major change to Pennsylvania politics because of the host of retirements, a brand new district map and rising political stars, it's especially significant because more women are running for Congress than the state has ever seen, according to Jennie Sweet-Cushman at the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

Twenty-three women are on the ballot running for the U.S. House of Representatives. No women are running for Senate, and one woman, Republican candidate Laura Ellsworth, is running for governor.

“Often times when women ran in the past, we would have considered their races sacrificial lambs up against highly popular or incumbent candidates … Now, they’re very well-qualified women who have a good shot at winning. In the past, we just almost never saw that,” Sweet-Cushman said.

But even with the surge, women make up just a quarter of the candidates on the ballot for the House, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics, and experts are tempering expectations amid the buzz of a “pink wave.”

“The challenge is to determine whether the spike in numbers will lead to a spike in women who win,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with CAWP.

Pearl Kim, a former county prosecutor and senior deputy state attorney general, is the only Republican woman running for U.S. Congress in the state.

And though Kim is the only Republican woman, she’s one of seven women running in her district.

A focus on “leading with accomplishments”

“I’m not running on a platform of ‘I'm a woman and you need to elect a woman.’ I’m running on a platform of ‘I’m qualified and I happen to be a woman’,” said Houlahan, who decided to run after the 2016 election.

“I’ve been leading with my accomplishments,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we’re still at a point where women have to be extremely more qualified to even be considered. I’m the only woman running in my race that's actually worked in the federal government — these are great qualifications but once they’re attached to a female, it’s, ‘Ok, that's nice, but let me consider the other candidates also’,” Corbin-Johnson said.

People will comment on her clothes, criticize whether she’s “playing fair or being nice” in her campaign and inquire about her relationship status.

She’s not married, but when voters ask her why she’s not “committed to someone,” she tells them that she is: “To you, the voters and this county."

Corbin-Johnson recalled an interaction with voters who told her they had confidence in her knowledge of the issues — but qualms about her patterned jacket. She said they told her they were still considering who to vote for.

“Be a woman and run for office and you will definitely see the stigmas are still out there,” Corbin-Johnson said.

But Corbin-Johnson also finds strength in the differences between her and her opponents. “I try to use what some people see as a negative and use it as a positive. Because I am a woman and African American, we reach out to those groups who’ve often felt ignored, who feel voiceless, and I talk to them,” she said.

There’s also a sense of camaraderie that’s developed among the women running, Corbin-Johnson said.

“There’s absolutely a common unity,” reiterated Houlahan, the military veteran running in Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District.

And even though she’s the only woman running for Congress in her district, more women are running for the state legislature within Chester County.

“We’re running up and down the ticket for all kinds of different things, all talking up with one voice about the importance of this election cycle, getting out to vote and hopefully changing the face of Pennsylvania,” she said.