Following a historic midterm election year for women, especially women of color, in 2018, many believed the 2020 general election would bring the nation’s total women serving in elected positions – in local, state, and federal government – to unseen heights.
In Bexar County, nearly five dozen women’s names were on the 2020 ballot – running for offices ranging from U.S. senator to school board trustee to Bexar County Commissioners Court.
“I saw this day coming eventually,” said Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University. “I used to tell my women students … I couldn’t figure out why women who I thought were smarter and more sociable and could put things together better than men could hadn’t done it before. And it’s come to pass now.”
Two women made history taking seats on the male-dominated Commissioners Court, but the outcomes of many congressional and state races in Texas did not favor female candidates.
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Even though Bexar County favored Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, it became more conservative further down the ballot, with other results showing that while progress is being made, Texas isn’t on par with other states that have welcomed women into the upper echelon of government.
The results in this year’s general election show how that happens and why women haven’t won more seats at the table even 100 years after earning the right to vote.
In state and federal elections where Democratic female candidates had heavy financial backing, they ended up conceding races to Republican men with mixed political experience.
MJ Hegar failed to unseat incumbent John Cornyn in the U.S. Senate race. Wendy Davis and Gina Ortiz Jones, both favored to win, lost their bids for the U.S. House. Celina Montoya also was defeated in her second attempt to win in Texas House District 121. Claire Barnett lost to incumbent Lyle Larson for House District 122. Only Liz Campos beat her challenger for the open House District 119 seat.
In the current Texas legislature, 45 of the total 181 seats in both houses are held by women, up from just eight women in 1975. In the 2020 elections, 92 women ran for Texas House and Senate seats. A large number of vacant seats in this election opened the door for women to enter the race with better odds at winning. Women tend to win when there’s no incumbent.
“It’s historic in the sense that Texas has this traditionalistic, individualistic political culture in that we have these traditional views of women and their place in the home and in politics,” said Sharon Navarro, professor of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“And that’s still very true given the limited number of women that we have serving at the state legislature, even some resistance to seeing women in executive positions.”
The rise in the number of political action committees devoted solely to funding women’s campaigns and issues, such as Emily’s List, and women-led public relations firms supporting political campaigns have contributed to the higher number of women running for office nationwide.
But part of the problem is that neither political party recruits enough women candidates, Navarro said, “and oftentimes when they do run, they’re usually sacrificial lambs,” or they run only for local offices, close to home due to personal commitments or limited campaign funds.
In San Antonio, six of the 10 current City Council members are women of color and the previous mayor was a Black woman.
However, representation on the Bexar County Commissioners Court has been historically male. The last female commissioner was Helen Dutmer who represented Precinct 4 for one term beginning in 1991 and Cyndi Taylor Krier in 1990 became the first woman, and first Republican, ever elected as Bexar County judge.
As votes for Texas women in major state and federal races remain elusive, their campaigns are evolving as they try and secure votes in conservative districts. At least two women candidates, Hegar and Jones, promoted their military service backgrounds. “Giving the idea to voters that they understand the hard issues, the policy, that they’re tough because you want to be tough in Texas,” Navarro said.
But it’s a fine line requiring some femininity as well, such as being a mother. “So it’s a very difficult line to walk if you’re a female candidate in Texas.” Hegar’s TV ads played up her tattoos and showed her riding a motorcycle. Jones was open about being gay, and her opponent used it against her.
And though women tend to center their campaign messages around family and social issues, especially for judicial seats, once they take office, the reality is women are just as bound by party lines as men, Navarro said.
Here’s a look at the outcome of some of the local and state races with women as candidates:
Congressional District 23: Tony Gonzales vs. Gina Ortiz Jones
In her second bid to represent the swing district, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones lost to Republican Tony Gonzales for a seat vacated by Will Hurd (R-Helotes).
The outcome means Gonzales, a veteran who ran for election to the U.S. House to represent Texas’ 35th Congressional District but withdrew before the primaries, will represent the largest geographic district in the state, and possibly the most diverse –racially, economically, and politically. “We were outspent, but we weren’t out-worked,” stated Gonzales in announcing his win.
The key to victory in the district was getting out the vote, Flores said. Voters were familiar with Jones – she narrowly lost to Hurd in 2018 – and they went to the polls.
But “because the district is so large, it’s difficult to get known across the entire district well enough for people to vote for you,” Flores said, adding that Jones was energetic and hard-hitting during her campaign, with a message focused on health care.
“While we came up short, I will always remain dedicated to serving our country and my community in any way I can,” Jones stated on Wednesday morning. “I hope TX-23 is represented with all of her constituents in mind, and in a way in which she deserves.”
Texas House District 121: Steve Allison vs. Celina Montoya
Another “get out the vote” district is Texas House District 121, Flores said. A district long held by Republicans, it covers parts of North Central and Northeast San Antonio as well as affluent neighborhoods Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills, and Olmos Park.
While both candidates spent big to get their supporters to the polls, Allison defeated Montoya again, just two years after he won the seat vacated by former Speaker of the House Joe Straus.
Congressional District 21: Chip Roy vs. Wendy Davis
For 40 years, District 21 has been a Republican-led district, one that stretches from Austin through the Hill County to the North Side of San Antonio.
First-term U.S. Rep. Chip Roy battled to hang onto his seat against former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who had name recognition from her 2013 filibuster against abortion restrictions in the state Senate along with her 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
Roy ran on a conservative platform and blasted Davis as a radical Democrat tied to dark money. Political ads compared her to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said she would bend to China and special interests. Davis’ campaign remained mostly focused on the issues, Flores said.
Roy’s victory is likely due to the large campaign account he built and the support from a heavily Republican district.
“I hope that young women and girls in Texas and around the country can take inspiration from this fight,” stated Davis in conceding. “I’ll continue to help raise my granddaughters to fight for what is right and the future they deserve, and today I want our supporters to know they should do the same.”
U.S. Senate: John Cornyn vs. MJ Hegar
It’s been 32 years since Texas elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, and nine years since voters elected a woman to the office.
During this election, MJ Hegar stood to become the first Democratic woman from Texas to serve in the U.S. Senate and only the second woman to represent Texas in the Senate.
Despite running for the U.S. House in 2018, her loss to Cornyn was partly due to a lack of name recognition, Navarro said.
During the campaign, Cornyn relied on his incumbency and mostly played defense to Hegar’s tough-gal campaign a la Ann Richards in the early ’90s. “I’m a Purple Heart combat veteran and a working mom of two, and I am your opponent,” she said at an Oct. 9 debate.
Hegar, who entered the Senate race after an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2018, outspent her opponent in the final weeks of the campaign, promoting her military service to conservatives and hoping to ride a blue wave to Washington as Republican voters became dissatisfied with the president and thus Cornyn.
But the 65-year-old senator has held the seat since 2002, and though he’s not as well known perhaps as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), voters in the historically Republican state know his name and his reputation.
“[Cornyn] hasn’t really done anything so terrible [while in office] that it would destroy his campaign,” Flores said. “It’s really hard to attack an incumbent who really hasn’t made a major mistake, or doesn’t have a scandal attached to their name.”
After election night results showed Cornyn had won 54 percent of the votes, Hegar, who carried Bexar County, tweeted: “Together, we’ve worked so hard, and overcome so much, shattering expectations along the way. We’ve built a powerful grassroots movement from the ground up, and I know our fight here in Texas is far from over.”
Texas House District 119: Liz Campos vs. George Garza
Former City Council candidate Liz Campos is the first woman elected to represent House District 119, the state district that covers the eastern side of Bexar County.
Campos beat Jennifer Ramos in the Democratic runoffs in July, then faced Republican George Garza in the general election. In the final month of the campaign, Ramos reported raising $2,000 in contributions and Garza $810.
Campos replaces Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio), who held the seat since 2008 and stepped down to run for State senate in District 19. Gutierrez beat the incumbent, state Rep. Pete Flores (R-San Antonio) by more than 12,000 votes as of election night.
Bexar County Commissioners Court
Long the domain of men, with only two women ever having served, the Bexar County Commissioners Court finally has two women on the dais.
Democrat Rebeca Clay-Flores’ win over Republican Gabriel Lara in Precinct 1, which encompasses much of Southwest Bexar County, follows her victory in July over incumbent Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez in the Democratic primary runoff.
Navarro called her a “sure bet” for the seat in the days leading up to the elections.
In the Precinct 3 race, two women vied for the seat vacated by Kevin Wolff who has represented the county’s North Side since 2008. Republican Trish DeBerry, the owner of a public relations firm and a 2009 mayoral candidate, won the race over political newcomer and children’s attorney Christine Hortick, a Democrat.
Their victories are not only historic, their presence will significantly change the makeup and culture of the five-member commissioners court.
“County government is really an artifact of the state government … leftover from the 19th century when state police powers and administrative powers couldn’t reach the far areas of Texas,” Flores said. Though much has changed with urban growth and county officials overseeing large tax bases and extensive public works, a “good ol’ boy” culture has persisted, Flores said.
Their 2020 elections represent a breakthrough.
“Trish been around for a long, long time. She’s a very well known personality politically, particularly in Republican circles,” Flores said. “[She] has run a very sophisticated operation because that’s her business. Hortick is an interesting newcomer to the game and she’s slowly becoming impressive.”
In Navarro’s view, Hortick made some novice mistakes in appealing to Texas voters, such as promoting her time as a congressional aide to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, Navarro said. “But I think you will hear more from her.”
Now even with the election behind them, both Clay-Flores and DeBerry have their work cut out for them as they try to bring their own unique perspectives, as women, to Commissioners Court.
“How much are they able to translate or transfer that perspective into policy is going to be a challenge because we are facing difficult economic times,” Navarro said. “Money is probably already earmarked and any new types of developments will be hard to pass because everyone is hurting financially, in every city.”
Meanwhile, across the country, all eyes are on the presidential elections which, with Harris as a vice presidential nominee, also could result in both a historic first and a potential turning point for women in politics.
“Biden and Trump and Pence are the last of the baby boomers,” Flores said. “And Kamala Harris is … the vanguard of the younger generations coming forth. And in those generations, you’re going to see more and more women.”