Politics & Government

Dozens of female candidates are headed to NC's fall elections. Did their gender help them?

Allison Dahle celebrates after defeating State House incumbent Duane Hall

First-time candidate Allison Dahle trounced incumbent Duane Hall in a state House primary. Hall, a Democrat facing sexual harassment allegations and calls to resign, was seeking a fourth term.
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First-time candidate Allison Dahle trounced incumbent Duane Hall in a state House primary. Hall, a Democrat facing sexual harassment allegations and calls to resign, was seeking a fourth term.

Linda Coleman never caught up to Ken Romley in the race for campaign donations, raising about $141,000 to his $572,000. Yet she swamped him in a Raleigh-area Democratic primary for U.S. House, winning more than 56 percent of the vote.

It was the same for Republican Vickie Sawyer running in an open state Senate district, who was outspent by influential former state Sen. Bob Rucho. Sawyer raised far less money, and defeated Rucho and two other candidates.

And there's Allison Dahle, a political newcomer who had about half the money of incumbent Duane Hall in a Democratic primary for a state House seat in Wake County. Dahle claimed an easy victory with 68 percent of the vote.

Did being a woman help these candidates win?

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Dahle said it definitely helped her defeat Hall, who is combating sexual harassment allegations.

"I think a lot of it had to do with the MeToo movement, but I think a lot of it had to do with me being a woman seeking equality," Dahle said. "I'm not defined by my lesbianism. I'm defined by the fact that I'm a woman."

For the general election, Dahle is running in a district that favors Democrats against Republican Tyler Brooks. Unofficial returns show more than 5,556 votes were cast in the district's Democratic primary, while the Republican primary drew 1,281 voters. Brooks is a lawyer with a specialty firm that helped defend a state law allowing magistrates to opt out of performing same-sex marriages and sidewalk abortion protesters who were combating a local ordinance.

Campaign signs for N.C. House candidate Duane Hall have been marked with a pink stencil of red lips amid allegations of sexual misconduct that Hall has denied. This sign was photographed on Monday, May 7, 2018, at the intersection of Maynard and Walnut streets in Cary, N.C. Robert Willett

"I'm the one who honks at them and tells them they need to move on and worry about something else, " Dahle said.

Brooks is "a nice gentleman," she said. "He and I are on totally opposite ends of the spectrum."

Lillian's List, a state organization that supports Democratic women candidates, had all four of the women it promoted in primaries win, Dahle included. Two of the four were incumbents.

"What we've always known and heard at Lillian's List, when women run, women win," said Executive Director Sarah Preston. "I don't know if there is an advantage, but we've seen this year so many women are running that it's proving that idiom correct. When we have the same number of women running as men, women do perform well."

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Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said being a female candidate along with singular circumstances of each contest helped some women win.

"What you're seeing with the MeToo movement is the continued expression of the female voting power that is obviously out there," he said. "Then you have the dynamics of the local race that probably factored into this."

Coleman is a known name in Democratic politics. She's a former state legislator from Wake County who's run twice unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

Name recognition helped Coleman, said Thomas Mills, Romley's general consultant. And being a woman helped her, too.

"It's not just North Carolina," he said. "Women didn't lose last night," he said, pointing to results from other states where women won congressional primaries.

"I wouldn't have been surprised by losing, but I was surprised we lost by that much," he said. "Women are voting as a bloc and I don't know if it's a moment or a movement."

In four states with Tuesday primaries — Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia — 62 percent of the women candidates for U.S. House won their primaries, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Voters vote at Raleigh Fire Station 23 during North Carolina’s primary elections Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

It's hard to know how a candidate's gender factors into any contest, Dittmar said. But certain advantages may come with each election cycle. If voters want change, for example, it may help women, who are often seen as outsiders, she said.

Coleman, who is African-American, "can argue she’ll bring something different and new," Dittmar said.

However, she said, most of the women are running in districts that favor their opponents.

"In the context of MeToo, Times Up, and the women's march, and clear under-representation of women in Washington, it's a reminder to voters, if you do value having women at the table" it's time to translate advocacy and support for women's rights into votes, she said.

State Democrats have boasted about women and African-Americans running for office. According to the state Democratic party, 65 Democratic women are left to run in state legislative districts in the general election, and 21 of those women are African-American.

Democratic women also outvoted others in the primaries.

According to the Carolina Transparency vote tracker run by the Civitas Institute, Democratic women cast 62 percent of the votes in the primaries. Republican women cast about half of the votes in that party's primaries.

Women outnumbered men in Democratic Party registration by about 59 percent to 41 percent. Republican registration is close to 50-50, according to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

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Republicans haven't made a big deal of their female candidates, but Donald Bryson, executive director of the conservative Civitas Institute, said it's good to see more women running.

Factors unique to the state Senate race in Iredell and Yadkin resulted in Sawyer's victory, Bryson said. She is well-known there, and she and her husband have an established business in the district.

"People know her there, she has roots there," Bryson said. "Talking to activists, that made a very, very large impact."

Rucho, who for years represented Mecklenburg County, moved into the district a day before he filed to run.

"Identity politics," as Bryson called it, may make a difference in some races, but the impact will be small.

"It makes a difference at the margins," he said. "Generally speaking, people go with what they believe in. Overall, it will come down to the substance of the race."

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Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner