For Women, Winning Elections Sometimes Means Losing First

Sep 23, 2016


On a hot and sunny July day Julie McCallister readied herself for a day of campaigning at Saratoga Days, decked out in her “Elect Julie McCallister” polo.

McCallister was running for the Wyoming State House seat in House District 47.

In the art show at the Platte Valley Community Center, McCallister approached potential voters, chatting about everything from the art to why she is qualified to serve.

“I really hope to have the opportunity to show my voters that it’s something I will give my entire heart and mind to,” McCallister told one potential voter.

After schmoozing with the attendees and buying a few art prints, McCallister retreated to her truck in the parking lot, which she had been using as a makeshift campaign headquarters, driving all over southern Wyoming to knock on doors and get her name out there.

McCallister said she had always been interested in politics and public service, but had never imagined herself as a candidate until a few years ago.

“It was time to put my money where my mouth was, and put myself in a situation to affect change positively. To do the hard work, commit to it 100 and three thousand percent.”

The race has been tough for McCallister. At 36 she is young for politics, and like many women she juggles a lot, especially since she is the full time caregiver for her husband who was paralyzed in a work accident. Her opponent is incumbent representative Jerry Paxton, who already beat her once in 2014.

But none of that deters Julie McCallister.

“The mistakes I made in 2014 I’ve learned from now in 2016, and I’m building on those. So I’m actually more confident,” she said.

The race does make McCallister nervous, but not for the usual reasons.

“Not because I’m facing an incumbent, not because I’m a woman. Those reasons don’t scare me. What scares me is because I care so much,” she said.

Many of the potential challenges McCallister faces are typical for female candidates. Family obligations, limited manpower and finances, and running against a male incumbent have been cited in studies by American University and the Brookings Institution as reasons why more women don’t run for office in the first place.

Growing a support system can be done, though. It’ll just takes time.

“It is a hurdle, not a barrier,” said Gale Geringer, a campaign manager in Wyoming, who has run campaigns for people like Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and former U.S. House Representative Barbara Cubin.

Getting your feet wet in politics, said Geringer, may mean taking a few hits at first.

“Someone who is a newcomer and doesn’t know a lot of people may not be successful the first time, but a lot of people run several times and then are successful.”

Geringer said these candidates gain support as they go along for a couple of reasons.

“One, their name ID grows each time they run. But two they’re bringing in people from everywhere and they learn what they did wrong the first time, and they solve those problems,” said Geringer.

Currently, only 13 percent of the state’s legislators are women, the lowest percentage of any state in the country. The good news is that McCallister is one of 40 women who ran in the state’s legislative primaries, more than in other recent elections. But breaking through and actually getting elected is tough.

McCallister lost in the primary again this year, but she is looking on the bright side.

“I did pretty darn well if you look at the races that are similar to mine, where I’m challenging an incumbent in the same party as me,” said McCallister.

McCallister gained ground this time around, from around 31 percent of the vote in 2014 to nearly 40 percent this year.

“I had one of the largest increases in percentage at a 7 percent increase,” said McCallister. “Another 7 and I could take him.”

This story is part of the series Women Run The West – a public radio collaboration exploring the role of women in western politics. You can hear more stories at womenrunthewest.org.