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‘It's Imperative That I Have A Seat At This Table:’ Record Number Of Maine Women Running For Office

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Mills, candidate for governor, spoke at a Planned Parenthood event

Some are calling 2018 the year of the woman.

The sentiment is fueled by the backlash to President Donald Trump, whose inauguration prompted millions to take to the streets for the Women's March in Washington, D.C. and around the country. And it's been sustained by a #metoo movement that has disrupted the power dynamic in Hollywood, media, politics and the workplace. Now, a record number of women are running for elected office, and many are asking how all of this energy might affect the upcoming election in Maine.

The recruiter who visited Amy Volk's Scarborough home eight years ago was looking for a Republican candidate to run for a seat in the House Representatives. The recruiter had a candidate in mind, but it wasn't Volk.

"Actually, the target of the recruitment effort was really my husband, which, you know, was fairly stereotypical, I think," Volk said.

Volk said that she explained that her husband, Derek, was too busy to run for the Legislature, much less serve if elected.

"This woman, who lived in my community and was doing the candidate recruitment, said, 'Well, I can't believe I can't find a candidate in my own backyard.’ And she said, ‘I'm really asking everybody.' And I jokingly said, 'Well, you haven't asked me,'" Volk said.

Volk is now the assistant majority leader in the Maine Senate, and depending on how republicans perform this November, could become the fourth-woman president of the chamber in its nearly 200-year history.

"Women tend to ask themselves, 'Well, am I qualified to do this?'" said Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

The story of Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon's entry into politics is similar to Volk's: a voicemail message looking for a candidate to fill a seat on the Freeport Town Council. That message was for her husband, Ben.

"I remember thinking to myself immediately that there's no way Ben is running for the town council, but I think I might be interested in running for the town council," she said.

As leaders of the legislature, Gideon and Volk are themselves recruiters, both dedicated to assuring that their parties either hold or improve their positions after the November election. And women are often their first choice.

There are 137 women running for the Maine Legislature this year, a number that shatters the previous record of 116 nominees that was set 12 years ago. The Senate GOP has nearly a dozen women running for 35 seats — also a record — and Gideon has 72 female democrats running in the 151-seat House.

Recruiting women has been a focus for the Democratic party for several years, an effort bolstered by the group Emerge Maine, which not only finds prospects, but also trains them. But Gideon says that even with that organizational horsepower, it has sometimes taken extra effort to convince women to run — until now. She says that the election of Donald Trump, whose approval rating among women voters is decidedly underwater and whose sexual misconduct scandals have been in the news, has energized women to run for office. And, Gideon says, women have replaced questions about their political qualifications with positive declarations.

“Yes, I'm qualified, and not only that, but I actually need to be there. It's imperative that I have a seat at this table. It's imperative that I'm one of the decision makers," she said.

Democrats are hoping this new energy and engagement favors them in November, not just in congressional races, but in the state’s as well. That includes the four-way contest for Maine governor.

Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public
University of New England student Marissa Laramie spoke with Planned Parenthood at a recent event with Mills

Earlier this week at an endorsement event by Planned Parenthood, Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills sought to frame her lead rival, Republican Shawn Moody, as just as dangerous to a woman's right to an abortion and reproductive health services as President Trump and his Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh.

"And I've got news for President Trump and Shawn Moody," Mills said. "If you want to roll back the rights of Maine women, if you want to come after Planned Parenthood and the critical services they provide to Maine people, you're gonna have to get through me first."

Some observers have suggested that women voters could turn congressional and state races in favor of Democrats in November. But the data aren’t clear. A recent Suffolk University poll of the Maine governor's race showed what many political scientists refer to as a “gender gap:” nearly 50 percent of female voters favored Mills while just under 30 percent supported Moody.

Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, says that women are historically more likely to vote for Democrats, and that might explain surveys that show higher enthusiasm among Democratic voters in general.

"Right now it seems like Republicans are trudging to the polls, where Democrats are running to the polls," Smith said.

But Smith cautions against drawing conclusions beyond that.

Women may indeed fuel the blue wave election that Democrats have been talking about this year, but, as University of New England student Marissa Laramie noted during the recent event with Mills, Democrats may need more voters to make that wave a tsunami.

"To all my peers and all the high schoolers who are turning 18 or will be 18 in the next few months, we need your vote!" Laramie said.

Originally published Aug. 31, 2018 4:55 p.m. ET.