In four states—Arkansas, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Oklahoma—most of the candidates on the ballot for governor and lieutenant governor are women. Should they win, it could mean that women hold the two top seats in a state government for the first time in United States history.
The women candidates span the political spectrum, from former Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, a pro-abortion rights Democrat running for governor, to Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was White House press secretary under former President Donald Trump and is running for governor of Arkansas.
Though the vast majority of candidates running for office this year are men, women are running in governor’s races at higher rates than usual, says Jennifer Lawless, chair of the politics department at the University of Virginia. Women candidates for office no longer face the same gender bias or stereotypes the way they did 30 years ago, Lawless argues, as a result of the increasing polarization of American politics. “The upside to party polarization, and the fact that politics have become so dysfunctional, is that knowing whether a candidate is a Democrat or Republican tells people almost everything they need to know,” says Lawless, whose research focuses on women in politics. “So that means that women have just as good a chance getting elected as men when the partisan composition of their state matches them.”
Here’s what to know about the four states that could make history by electing women to both top spots in the state.
Experts believe Arkansas and Massachusetts will likely be the first states to elect women to fill the governor and lieutenant governor seats for the first time.
Arkansas is a red state, and Republicans have held both the governor’s office and the state house and senate there since 2015. The governor’s race between Sanders and her Democratic opponent Chris Jones will “very likely” end in a win for Sanders, who has an 18.3 point lead, according to an analysis of poll data by FiveThirtyEight. The race for lieutenant governor is between Republican Leslie Rutledge, who is the state’s current attorney general, and Democrat Kelly Krout.
“As the first woman elected attorney general, I know the importance of breaking glass ceilings,” Rutledge tells TIME in a statement, “but historical milestones need not come at the expense of America. We must elect women (and men) who will make America stronger and safer while always defending our freedoms.”
Krout, who is a social worker and mom of seven and has been campaigning with Jones, a Black man, tells TIME she appreciates that the gubernatorial race in Arkansas will be historic, one way or another. “All of the women in this race, myself, Leslie Rutledge, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, politically speaking we are all pretty young. We’re all mothers of young children, and I appreciate the representation there because we’re showing other women that you too can do this,” Krout says. “Being perfectly honest, of course, I want to see us elect the first Black man as governor, because electing the women on the right is not going to be the step forward for women that we would hope for it to be. It’s going to move Arkansas backwards.”
Massachusetts is also likely to elect women for governor and lieutenant governor. Democrat Maura Healey, the state’s attorney general, is running for governor against Republican Geoff Diehl, and leads him by nearly 25 points, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. Healey will likely become the first woman to govern the state and one of the first openly lesbian governors in history.
The lieutenant governor match-up is between two women: Democrat Kim Driscoll, the mayor of Salem, Mass., and Republican Leah Cole Allen, a nurse who was fired for refusing to take a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Democratic candidates have acknowledged the historical significance of their races. “It’s election day. Lace up your sneakers, Massachusetts. We have history to make,” Driscoll tweeted on Tuesday.
“To every little girl out there, I want you to know — you can be whatever you want to be,” Healey tweeted on Nov. 3.
The two women running for governor and lieutenant governor of Ohio may not fare as well as those in Arkansas or Massachusetts.
Whaley and her running-mate Cheryl Stephens, a council member for Cuyahoga County and a Black woman, have emphasized the historic nature of their campaign. But polls indicate that incumbent Governor Mike DeWine is likely to keep his seat—he and his running mate, Jon Husted, hold a 20.7 point lead over Whaley and Stephens, according to FiveThirtyEight.
But the Democratic women candidates hope the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn a constitutional right to abortion will motivate Democrats to turn out in higher numbers to vote. “Now that the Supreme Court has sent the issue of abortion rights to the states, electing a pro-choice, female governor and lieutenant governor has never been more important,” a spokesperson for the Whaley-Stephens campaign tells TIME in a statement. “At this moment in time, more than ever, we need women leaders who will fight for the rights of Ohio women—and all working Ohioans.”
Still, experts suggest that may not be enough to lift Whaley and Stephens to victory. “We know that abortion is one of the issues that can drive up turnout this election cycle,” Lawless says. “That said, the political climate and taking on a Republican incumbent, and the demographics and partisanship of that state, make it very, very difficult for a Democratic female candidate to win.”
The race for Oklahoma governor is one of the tightest in the country, and the Democratic candidate, Joy Hofmeister, is fighting to defeat Republican incumbent Kevin Stitt.
Hofmeister is a lifelong Republican who only recently changed her party affiliation to Democrat in order to run against Stitt. “I was a Republican longer than Governor Stitt was registered to vote,” Hofmeister told TIME. “I’m fiscally conservative. I’m aggressively moderate. Always have been.”
A woman is also running for lieutenant governor: Melinda Alizadeh-Fard, a Democrat and an attorney. “This state has been red too long, so long that the current administration has acted with carte blanche to disenfranchise women and our Native American tribes, as well as embrace cronyism and wasteful spending practices,” Alizadeh-Fard tells TIME in a statement. “That two women are taking this on just goes to show that we are not afraid of a challenge to fight for what is right and to protect our people.”
The issue of abortion may play a role in the outcome of the vote. Oklahoma has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, banning abortions even in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s health is at risk—a ban Stitt signed into law, and that even some conservatives have criticized. Hofmeister, who says she is personally pro-life but believes abortion is a healthcare decision between a woman and her doctor, told TIME she ran as a Democrat in order to oppose Stitt’s brand of Republicanism. “He is pandering to extremism,” she said.
Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Correction, November 8
The original version of this story miscounted the number of states that could elect women to both top government seats. There are four, not three.
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