Election 2018: Was It the Year of the Woman in California?

Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill waves to supporters at her election night party in California's 25th Congressional District on Nov. 6, 2018, in Santa Clarita, California.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A record number of women ran for political office in 2018. KQED's series "The Long Run" has focused on a handful of candidates from California, who were gunning for seats in everything from city council to Congress.

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he number of California women holding statewide and federal office grew this year after several won seats in the midterm elections, with some advocates extolling the gains and others saying it didn't go far enough to reach gender parity.

Some of the biggest moves came in the California State Legislature: After accounting for some losses, women were projected to win eight seats overall -- four each in the Senate and the Assembly (not all of the races have been called), including two through earlier special elections. Seventy-five percent of the candidates were women of color, said Susannah Delano, executive director of Close the Gap CA, a group focused on increasing the number of progressive women serving in the Legislature.

“2018 will be the biggest single leap for women in state history,” Delano said Wednesday. “We're seeing as many as eight or more women joining this year, which is more than any of the last decades.”

Delano said previous high totals of women winning state legislative office in one year had been five — which has happened three times in California history.

The group normally targets open seats or those that are “purple” politically. At the beginning of 2018, only a few such seats were available.

“Once the #MeToo allegations started hitting, there were more open seats than we anticipated. #MeToo really is a big part of the story,” Delano said, adding that the group expanded its efforts as the Democrats' so-called blue wave gained steam.

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“We looked to a few of the districts that overlapped with those national targets for work because we thought there would be more activity, more investment and more infrastructure to help push those women along," she said. "And I think we're seeing that.”

Buffy Wicks, who won the Assembly District 15 seat, speaks to the crowd at her election night party in Berkeley on Nov. 6, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

With the eight seats female candidates picked up this year, women now make up 28 percent of the Legislature — up from 21 percent one year ago. (That number could go up, if women potentially pick up two more additional seats in races that are currently too close to call.) Those numbers put California above the national average for female representation at statehouses, which is 25 percent.

“It's been very strange for the past several decades where California's actually had fewer women in office than many other states across the country,” said Kimberly Nalder, a political science professor at California State University, Sacramento. Even with the gains, 28 percent is a “pretty significant underrepresentation of women,” who make up more than half of the population, she added.

“Hopefully, this curve starts to increase — become steeper — because otherwise we're looking at the end of our lifetimes before women reach parity in the state Legislature at this pace,” she said.

Rachel Michelin, CEO of California Women Lead, a nonpartisan group that helps women seek elected or appointed office in the state, said more California women ran this cycle -- but it wasn't the huge wave who marched in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

"I just don't think that materialized as much. I would give it kind of a mixed bag because I don't want women to think, 'Yes, this is the year of the woman and now our work is done' -- because it's not," she said. "We still have a lot of work to do and we still have a lot of places that we need to continue to have women getting politically engaged."

While "it's great that we're moving forward in terms of gaining seats, we still haven't cracked that 30 percent," she said. "And we're not even close to parity in terms of the representation in either house."

The statehouse gains come as a record number of women won congressional seats nationwide. At least 108 women have won their races for the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate, raising their representation from 20 percent to at least 22 percent in Congress, NPR reported.

In California, at least 17 female incumbents won their seats in Congress, while one — Republican Mimi Walters — was in a race against Democrat Katie Porter that wasn't called as of Friday afternoon. Steven Knight conceded his seat in northern Los Angeles County to newcomer Katie Hill, according to the Los Angeles Times. Knight's seat was one of seven that Democrats hoped to flip, and four women challengers — including one Republican woman — were hoping to win them. As of Friday afternoon, Republican Young Kim was leading Democrat Gil Cisneros 54 to 46 percent in the 39th District in Southern California.

California Women Lead expects the state's congressional delegation to grow by two to 19.

Republican congressional candidate in California's 39th District, Young Kim (R), arrives with her husband, Charles Kim, at an election night event in Rowland Heights, California, on Nov. 6, 2018. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Generally, one to two California women get elected each cycle to Congress, Nalder said. Four would be an improvement, but it would barely change the overall percentage of women in Congress.

“Every year you think, ‘Oh, this will be the year and then it isn't,’ ” said Nalder. “Especially this year with the Kavanaugh hearings and the resist movement and all of that. It was a little bump, but it's not this massive shift in the trajectory that I think people have been hoping for, for a long time.”

While more women were running for congressional seats in California than in previous years, most of those contests were in districts that weren’t favorable to them, she said. Of 13 women challengers who lost their bids, eight were Republicans.

“It is encouraging that more women ran even if they lost ... because they got that electoral experience,” she said. “One of the big problems historically for having women in elected office is the concept of the pipeline. There just aren't enough women with experience and expertise and that background in it.”

Women also won three of the eight statewide offices, with Eleni Kounalakis becoming California's first female lieutenant governor.

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