Always the Lieutenant, Never the Governor
Photo: Governor Phil Murphy signs a bill expanding paid family leave in New Jersey, accompanied by Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver (second from left). Source: WHYY New Jersey
While women have made progress in political representation in recent years, executive offices remain elusive. Women make up just 16% of governors in the United States – significantly behind where women stand in Congress (27%) and state legislatures (31%). At the same time, women are approaching parity in lieutenant governor’s offices, making up 41% of lieutenant governors nationwide.
The role of lieutenant governor, much like the role of vice president, is largely ceremonial and highly dependent on the governor. The most prominent role of a lieutenant governor is to succeed a governor who dies, resigns, or is removed from office, but of the 374 lieutenant governors who have served since 1980, just 41 have ascended to the role of governor.
The representation of women in lieutenant governors offices and lack of women governors begs the question, why are we as a nation comfortable with women in second place, but not in command?
Where Women Sit
Currently just eight women serve as governor – five Democrats and three Republicans. The record number of women to serve as governor simultaneously is nine, which occurred in 2004, 2007, 2019, and again in 2021, before Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo resigned to serve as Commerce Secretary in the Biden Administration.
Twenty states have never elected a woman governor and no Black or Native American women have ever been elected to the office. Just 44 women – 26 Democrats and 18 Republicans – have ever held the office and only three women of color – Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Michelle Lujan-Grisham.
Data: Center for American Women and Politics
Barriers to the Governor’s Mansion
Women Don’t Run
Women are not running for governor at the same rates that they are for other offices. For most elected offices, women make up about 30% of the candidates. Given that women win at roughly the same rate as men, this means they win roughly 30% of the seats. For Congress, state legislatures, and local offices, this average holds. But fewer women are running for governor. From 2000 to 2018, Democratic women made up just 25% of Democratic gubernatorial candidates and Republican women made up just 10% of Republican gubernatorial candidates.
To reach parity, women need to account for at least 50% of the candidates and more women needed to be encouraged, and supported, to run for governor – and win.
Women running for office have historically faced numerous financial challenges – from lack of access to large donors to sexism in PAC giving – to read more about the financial barriers women face, read our previous column, The Cost of Success.
Women running for governor, however, face even more severe barriers when fundraising. Women donors are far more likely to give to women candidates than men are and in recent years women have become a larger share of donors to federal- and state-level candidates – but the same progress has not been seen in gubernatorial races. The share of women donors in gubernatorial races has remained relatively flat – so as women running for Congress and state legislature see their fundraising power increase each cycle, women running for governor do not.
Additionally, Republican women candidates for governor are disproportionately affected by the gender gap in fundraising. Women were 51% of individual donors to Democratic women, compared to just 33% of individual donors to Republican women. The end result is that Republican women have less access to already limited funding.
Power of Incumbency
Incumbents – elected officials currently holding the office they are running for – are far more likely to win their elections than challengers running against them, in large part because they are usually much better funded.
In a primary election, when a candidate runs against a sitting governor who is a member of the same political party, the challenger raises far less money, regardless of gender. The same is true in a general election if the incumbent is a man and the challenger is a woman—the incumbent (man) will raise more money than the challenger (woman). However, if the incumbent is a woman and the challenger is a man, the man is likely to be better funded than if the challenger was a woman.
Given that in the vast majority of elections, the candidate who raises the most wins, this is a massive disadvantage for women candidates. And since just eight women currently serve as governor, far fewer women experience the powerful benefits of incumbency. Until more women are elected governor, the power of incumbency will remain a high barrier to parity.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, a political science professor at Rutgers University, spoke about the extent of the power of incumbency in gubernatorial elections: “If governors are seeking reelection, and they’re likely to win, that’s going to return mostly male governors. So it is absolutely a vicious cycle.”
Learn more about the power of incumbency in our column, The Challenge for Challengers.
Voter Perceptions of Women’s Leadership
While most voters are increasingly comfortable with women in legislative bodies, many feel less confident with women in roles with sole decision-making authority such as governor or president. In addition, because so few women, and particularly women of color, have been elected governor, voters are more likely to picture a governor as an older white man. And so the vicious cycle continues.
While women are seen as more compassionate, honest, and consensus-seeking leaders – traits more closely associated with collaborative and legislative roles – men are seen as more decisive, innovative, and ambitious – traits voters are more likely to associate with executive roles.
In addition to concerns about women’s leadership traits, key issues for a governor – budgets, taxes, and the economy – have traditionally been considered masculine issues, with voters doubting women’s abilities to handle these issues. Instead, voters associate women with issues such as education and healthcare. This can be detrimental as women are equally qualified to handle economic issues, yet are forced to continuously prove their qualifications on the campaign trail, when men are immediately accepted as qualified to handle these issues.
Additional Challenges for Women of Color and LGBTQ+ Women
These differences are even more stark for women from historically marginalized communities. Women of color and LGBTQ women face additional concerns about electability – whether voters doubt their ability to get elected, maintain racist or homophobic biases, or simply are more comfortable with what they have experienced before, which likely does not include many women of color or LGBTQ women.
"Black women are closing the gap when it comes to measures like fundraising, garnering support in majority white districts, and winning more statewide offices," said Glynda Carr, President and CEO of Ascend partner Higher Heights Leadership. "Nevertheless, significant gaps in elected leadership opportunities remain, especially when it comes to governorships and U.S. Senate seats. Removing these barriers is critical because such offices are ultimately the pipeline to the nation’s top office."
Why Women Matter
Women Govern Differently
Research has shown that women are demonstrably more effective lawmakers, working not just harder but also more collaboratively than their male peers. Seeking consensus is crucial to achieving results as governor, particularly in states with divided governments. Women governors also focus more on the social welfare issues that affect families every day, such as healthcare, childcare, and housing. Put simply, the research shows that the more women we elect, the better our government works.
Women Lead Effectively During Crises like COVID-19
Not only do women govern more effectively in times of stability, but the data make clear that this is true during times of crisis as well. In practice, this is reflected by the fact that states with women governors had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states led by men. This is in part because women governors were more empathetic to their constituents about the burden of the crisis and expressed more confidence about the ability of the state to get through the pandemic, leading constituents to be more willing to follow public health recommendations and stay-at-home orders.
Research shows that in a time of crisis, such as a global pandemic, voters want a leader who can take a 360-degree view of the problem, be empathetic to the concerns of their constituents, and communicate by both sharing information and listening. These are leadership styles that voters believe women are better at than men. While voters may be hesitant to support women running for executive office, women have been more effective leaders in times of crisis and exhibit the traits voters look for during crises.
How to Elect More Women Governors
1. Boost Institutional & Financial Support
Electing more women and strengthening our democracy will not happen overnight. The barriers women face when running for governor must be broken down to allow more women to run – and win.
In 2021, Democratic Governors Michelle Lujan Grisham and Kate Brown joined forces to chair the Women Governor’s Fund – a project of the Democratic Governors Association to support Democratic women gubernatorial candidates.
“We have an obligation to remove key barriers, and certainly one of those is resources. So if we know that we’re not getting to the voters, that we’re not introducing them to these incredible women who by all accounts have incredible outcomes as executives, then we need to make sure that there’s a direct, finance-resource mechanism that is available to these up-and-coming statewide candidates.”
- Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
The Women Governor’s Fund hopes to raise $5 million this year to help break down the barriers women running for governor face and help fund their campaigns. Similar support is needed to help recruit and train Republican women, who have historically had even less access to institutional and financial support than Democratic women.
2. Provide Training and Support
The barriers women face when running for governor are unique – voters are particularly harsh critics of women seeking executive office and women must be prepared to establish themselves as qualified candidates. The Ascend Fund is proud to partner with organizations that are breaking down the barriers women face when running for office and providing women with the tools, resources, and skills to run for office. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon, the first openly bisexual official elected statewide in the United States, was supported by LGBTQ Victory Fund in her first run for statewide office in 2008. Support like this is crucial in ensuring that women choose to run – and win.
3. Change the Narrative
A key aspect of helping more women become governor is transforming the public narrative around women’s leadership. Women are qualified to be governor and must be encouraged to run, supported throughout their campaign, and ultimately voted for, yet women running for governor must spend more time demonstrating and proving their qualifications than their male counterparts.
Women candidates are more likely to have held elected office before running for governor than men, meaning women feel that they are not qualified to run unless they have previously held office, while men often run on private sector experience. Shifting public opinion about women’s leadership and allowing women to run on an equal playing field to their men opponents is crucial to ensuring that women reach parity in governors offices.
Executive offices pose unique challenges for women running for office. But when they are elected, women are more successful, fight for overlooked yet crucial issues, and better protect their constituents during times of crisis.
While women currently hold just eight of the 50 governor offices, the 19 women currently serving as lieutenant governor are prime candidates to run for executive office and should be supported and encouraged to do so.
We must break down the barriers women face when running for all offices – particularly executive offices where women are so woefully underrepresented – because electing women isn’t just what’s right, it’s what’s good for democracy.
 National Lieutenant Governor Association – Chart of Gubernatorial Successions Note – five states do not have a lieutenant governor and in several states the secretary of state or president of the Senate also serves at lieutenant governor.  Center for American Women and Politics – History of Women Governors  Politics, Groups, and Identities – Women and Unequal Voices in Governors’ Races: A Study of Campaign Contributions  Politics, Groups, and Identities – Women and Unequal Voices in Governors’ Races: A Study of Campaign Contributions  Center for American Women and Politics – Are Women Reshaping the Political Donor Class? Money Matters in the Upcoming Races for Governor  Center for American Women and Politics – Are Women Reshaping the Political Donor Class? Money Matters in the Upcoming Races for Governor  Center for American Women and Politics – The Money Hurdle in the Race for Governor  The 19th News – There Are Only 8 Women Governors. Here’s How Two Plan to Fix That  Pew Research Center – Chapter 2: What Makes a Good Leader, Does Gender Matter?  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women  New York Times – Women Do Actually Govern Differently  State and Local Government Review – Gender and the Gubernatorial Agenda  American Psychological Association – Women’s Leadership Is Associated With Fewer Deaths During the COVID-19 Crisis: Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses of United States Governors  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Rising to the Occasion: How Women Leaders Prove They Can Handle a Crisis  The 19th News – There Are Only 8 Women Governors. Here’s How Two Plan to Fix That  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Ready, Willing, and Electable – Women Running for Executive Office  The 19th News – There Are Only 8 Women Governors. Here’s How Two Plan to Fix That