clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Zac Freeland/Vox

Filed under:

9 women to watch from this year’s midterms

Meet the breakout stars of the 2018 election.

As primary after primary has shown, the 2018 cycle is living up to its “year of the woman” moniker, giving rise to a number of breakout stars.

Women candidates have been responsible for some of this year’s biggest upsets, won historic governorship nominations, and played a key role in questioning establishment politics. On the Democratic side, especially, recent data from the Cook Political Report shows that women aren’t just running in record numbers — they’re also winning.

The prominence of women candidates in this year’s races has catapulted a host of fresh faces onto the national stage. Here’s a look at nine breakout stars from the midterms so far.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — New York (House) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

To say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a breakout star this election cycle almost sounds like an understatement at this point. Her primary win against the top-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Joe Crowley, was unexpected for some, but it was easily the biggest upset on the Democratic side. She even recently won a write-in nomination in a district she wasn’t running in.

Not only is Ocasio-Cortez a fresh face — at 28, she will likely be the youngest woman elected to Congress if she wins in November (and she probably will, as it’s a heavily Democratic district) — but she also ran on a lot of issues that are popular with the left wing of the party: Medicare-for-all, a jobs guarantee program, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Her win was an exciting moment for those pushing progressive policies, particularly those who’d like to see the party adopt grassroots fundraising over big-dollar donors. Her opponent, Crowley, had close ties to Wall Street and other big-dollar donors.

Now Ocasio-Cortez is becoming a political force of her own, endorsing other Democrats around the country who are people of color running on progressive platforms. She could be just the first in a wave of new Democrats in the party.

“I do sense a huge difference now,” Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times recently. “I think when people see that we are using this bullhorn for something that’s not self-interested, they’re more likely to pay attention.” —Kay Steiger

Kyrsten Sinema — Arizona (Senate) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Kyrsten Sinema, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Sen. Jeff Flake’s open Arizona seat, is trying to buck Democrats’ 30-year dry spell in the state by leaning into her independent streak.

Sinema, a representative for Arizona’s Ninth Congressional District for the past three terms, has become known for her unflinching willingness to stand up to the party establishment. Her win is seen as pivotal for Democrats’ hope to retake the majority in the upper chamber.

According to recent polls, Sinema has a real shot of flipping the seat. She’s currently leading all her Republican rivals including Rep. Martha McSally, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. She would become the first openly bisexual candidate to be elected to the upper chamber and the state’s first female senator if she wins in November. The primary takes place on August 28.

Sinema hasn’t had a problem shaking things up in the past: She voted against Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader and is the first Democrat to say she won’t back Chuck Schumer to lead the party in the Senate. Because she’s the heavily favored Democratic frontrunner, she’s had the opportunity to begin investing in large-scale messaging efforts, even as her Republican competitors try to duke it out with one another ahead of the state’s primary in late August.

“The Democratic leadership has failed Democrats across the country,” she told Politico. “I am unafraid to say what I believe about what I think our party needs to do and I think our party needs to grow and change.” —Li Zhou

Stacey Abrams — Georgia (governor) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s former House minority leader, could be the first black woman to become a US governor.

In a rare show of party unity, Abrams received enthusiastic support from both the broader Democratic establishment and more progressive groups like the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution for her governor’s run in Georgia.

Abrams was a Hillary Clinton surrogate in 2016 but emphasized that she’s hired folks who’ve worked with Sanders and former President Barack Obama as well. “I am absolutely a progressive,” she told Time in an interview, “but I would not say that I represent any wing of the Democratic Party except for the Democratic wing.” She’s demonstrated a unique ability to bring disparate factions of the Democratic Party together, walking away with a whopping 76 percent of the vote during her primary.

Abrams focused her campaign on bringing new voters to the polls and rallying voters of color who have sat out recent political contests. African Americans make up a sizable proportion of the Georgia electorate and turned out in high numbers for the Democratic primary in May. Despite the strong backing Abrams has received and the historic nature of her candidacy, however, her race will be a tough one given Georgia’s long-held conservative leanings. —LZ

Mikie Sherrill — New Jersey (House) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Mikie Sherrill, a former prosecutor and Navy pilot, has made a name for herself as a fundraising phenomenon who swept her primary earlier this year with 75 percent of the vote.

She’s vying to take over the House seat in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, which is being vacated by retiring Republican incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen. Her wealthy suburban district represents a pivotal Democratic pickup opportunity as the party tries to spur a “blue wave” this fall.

Sherrill has run an exceedingly strong campaign and secured a bevy of endorsements from Democratic heavyweights including former Vice President Joe Biden. She’s said her motivation to pursue the seat has been fueled in part by the election of Trump in 2016. “That election was a real slap in the face to a lot of us,” she told Bloomberg. “Progress wasn’t inevitable.”

Her district is one of the most closely watched in the state, steadily moving to the left in recent years.

A June poll showed Sherrill neck and neck with her Republican competitor, state Assembly member Jay Webber, and indicated that she could get a boost from enthusiastic Democratic voters. CNN even shifted the rating for the district — which has historically been Republican — from Toss-Up to Lean Democratic after Sherrill’s win earlier this summer. —LZ

Kristi Noem — South Dakota (governor) Republican

Zac Freeland/Vox

Republican lawmaker Kristi Noem is on the road to becoming South Dakota’s first woman governor.

Noem definitively beat out state Attorney General Marty Jackley in the June primary by 13 points; in a deeply red state, she is now the frontrunner to replace the term-limited Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard. And she’s bucked what has so far been a trend of losses for House Republicans seeking higher office.

So far, in 2018 Republican Rep. Raul Labrador lost his primary for Idaho governor; two Indiana Republicans, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, lost out to a political outsider in their Senate bids; and West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins lost the Senate primary to the state’s AG. Even the House Republicans who did win their primaries for statewide office — like Rep. Jim Renacci in Ohio’s Senate race — haven’t had strong showings.

Noem, however, is on her way to a historic win in November. She already has experience representing South Dakota as the state’s one at-large House representative, a position she was elected to in 2010. She holds a highly coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has power over the nation’s tax code — a legislative position she has worked to highlight on the campaign trail.

Yet her record in Washington hasn’t been without hiccups. When Noem was selling the Republican tax plan last year, she became the face of repealing the estate tax, which she said had negatively impacted her ranching family when her father died. As several reports pointed out, the story didn’t quite add up; there is an estate tax exemption if the deceased’s spouse is still living, as Noem’s mother is. But that hasn’t stopped Noem.

When she came into office, she was one of only 24 Republican women in the House. Now she’s one of 23. But don’t expect her to highlight that on the campaign trail.

“Sure, it would be incredibly special to be the first female governor, but I also think that people are supporting me because of the person that I am and what I bring to the table,” Noem said, according to the Associated Press. —Tara Golshan

Ilhan Omar — Minnesota (House) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar already made history in 2016 when she became the first Somali-American Muslim elected to office. Now she’s hoping to make history again by becoming the first Muslim woman elected to the US Congress.

Ironically, Omar is running to replace Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison, a well-known progressive figure in the party, is currently running for Minnesota attorney general. The race that really matters for Omar is the Democratic primary; the district is rated D+26, so there’s almost no chance of a Republican winning in the general.

Omar’s story is particularly resonant given the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. Omar fled war-torn Somalia in the early 1990s and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before moving to the United States. In her race for Congress, she’s up against Minnesota state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, a fellow immigrant. Omar has already been endorsed by her district’s local Democratic Party and is a known entity in national progressive circles, but the outcome of her race is far from certain.

If Omar makes it to Washington, there’s a chance she could be one of many Muslim women to do so; she’s part of a group of five including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th District, Fayrouz Saad of Michigan’s 11th District, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud of Massachusetts’s First District, and US Senate candidate Deedra Abboud, running in Arizona. —Ella Nilsen

Kara Eastman — Nebraska (House) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Kara Eastman’s May win in the Nebraska Second was our first indicator that an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earthquake would rattle the Democratic establishment a month later. She beat former Rep. Brad Ashford, an ex-Republican who had the support of the Democratic establishment, for the Democratic nomination in this swing district covering the Omaha area.

Eastman ran to the left of Ashford, who had won the district for Democrats in 2014 before losing it in 2016, as close to an incumbent as you get. She most notably endorsed Medicare-for-all, the marquee issue for progressives right now. And she eked out a win, one of the big victories for women and more lefty candidates in Democratic primaries this year.

Though she upset the establishment’s preferred candidate, the Second District should still be competitive.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Don Bacon beat Ashford in 2016 by a single percentage point, and this district has a history of narrow elections. Voters here elected Ashford by 3 points in 2014. Donald Trump won here by just 2 percentage points in 2016.

Cook and the other major election prognosticators think this is a toss-up/maybe Lean Republican race in 2018. It could be a pivotal pickup in the Democratic bid to flip 24 seats and take back the House this fall — and a test of whether Medicare-for-all can win in swing seats. —Dylan Scott

Gina Ortiz Jones — Texas (House) Democrat

If Gina Ortiz Jones beats the Republican Congress member she’s facing in November, she’ll break a number of barriers, especially in deep-red Texas. Beyond being the first woman to represent the 23rd Congressional District if elected, she would also be the first openly lesbian representative, and the first Filipina American elected from the district. She’s also an Iraq War veteran.

Beyond her time in the military, Ortiz Jones also served as President Obama’s senior adviser for trade enforcement. The daughter of a Filipina immigrant and single mother who became a domestic worker and then a teacher to support her two children Ortiz Jones has been public about coming out to her mother at age 15 and serving in the military under the restrictive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

A first-time candidate, Ortiz Jones is one of the Democratic Party’s breakout stars in one of the few Texas districts where Democrats have a real shot at winning. The 23rd District is huge, encompassing a large portion of the southern border with Mexico. It’s also one of the most likely to flip; Hillary Clinton won it in 2016, and the seat regularly changes hands between Democrats and Republicans.

Ortiz Jones will face off against Rep. Will Hurd, a young, moderate Republican who authored a bipartisan immigration bill that he tried unsuccessfully to get through the House. Even though Hurd votes reliably Republican, he also broke with his party by voting against Obamacare repeal last year. —EN

Amy McGrath — Kentucky (House) Democrat

Zac Freeland/Vox

Amy McGrath broke out of the pack of Democratic women veterans running for Congress early with her first campaign ad, which highlighted her accomplishment of being the first woman to fly a combat mission for the US Marine Corps.

McGrath has a long history of challenging the status quo; she did it again successfully when she won the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, which went strongly for Trump in 2016. She positioned herself as the outsider candidate (McGrath’s millionaire opponent initially had the backing of national Democrats), talking about the need of a new generation of Democratic leaders in Washington.

“We have to get back to talking to the working and middle class; we have to have more women,” McGrath told Vox.

She’s facing a steep climb in November — she’s running against incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Barr in Trump country. Though the Sixth District technically has more registered Democrats, it’s voted reliably Republican in past elections. McGrath’s plan? Speak to as many rural voters as possible, and try to convince them that she’ll be an independent voice for them in Congress. —EN

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.