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  • Writer's pictureThe Ascend Fund

The Challenge for Challengers

(Source: Erin Scott, Getty Images)

Winning a contested election is never easy for women, who regularly face sexism and other barriers on the campaign trail, but it is especially difficult when a woman is running as a challenger against an incumbent who currently holds the seat and, in many cases, has for years. In 2020, incumbent members of Congress won reelection at a rate of 96% and in 38 states, 100% of the congressional delegations were reelected. [1]

Given that women hold just 31% of state legislative seats and make up only 26% of Congressional membership, to increase women’s representation, they must run as challengers against incumbents – campaigns that are notoriously difficult to win. In 2020, women were challengers in 55% of Congressional races and incumbents in only 33%. The disparity was even more striking when compared between political parties, but it makes sense considering Democratic women outnumbered Republican women 105 to 21 prior to the 2020 election. [2]

(Data: Center for American Women and Politics, 2020 Summary of Potential Women Candidates)

At the state level, the trends were similar. Democratic women ran for office as incumbents and challengers at similar rates, but Republican women were far more likely to run as challengers. This is largely because the majority of women in state legislatures are Democrats and, in many states, women are at or near parity in Democratic caucuses.

In large part, incumbency dictates success because it comes with a number of advantages, including name recognition, fundraising, and campaign infrastructure to name a few.

Name Recognition

Given the high-profile nature of their work, most incumbents have higher name recognition than challengers. News outlets are more likely to interview a current elected official, and they can engage directly with constituents through newsletters and townhalls. In contrast, challengers must use earned and paid media to reach voters, increase their name recognition, and improve their chance of success which is a disadvantage and compounded by the fundraising barriers.

Raising Money

Campaigns aren’t cheap, and fundraising has real effects on election outcomes. Incumbents regularly outraise challengers thanks to a pre-existing donor base, access to institutional money, and the aforementioned name ID. In 2020, the average Congressional House incumbent had a nearly seven to one fundraising advantage over the challenger. [3]

Incumbents are also able to accumulate war chests, raising more than they spend each cycle, and building up a fundraising advantage that is almost impossible to overcome. This year, 109 of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are entering the 2022 election cycle with more than $1 million on hand, a sum that far exceeds what most challengers will raise in a two-year election cycle. Well-known and high-ranking members of Congress can have war chests in the tens of millions of dollars, for example California Representative Adam Schiff has nearly $14 million in the bank. [4]

Incumbents also raise far more dollars from political action committees (PACs) – a perceived barometer of viability and institutional support – than challengers. 86.2% of PAC dollars in 2020 went to incumbents, while just 7.7% went to challengers. [5] Without access to large swaths of funding, it is much harder for challenger candidates to be successful.

To increase the chances of women succeeding as challengers, donors need to be willing to support challengers and do so at or above the levels they support incumbents. Another important factor is timing. Donors, PACs, and fundraisers need to invest in women challengers early not just in the closing days before a competitive election, so that candidates can hire staff, build infrastructure, and begin reaching voters.

Campaign Infrastructure

Winning campaigns requires skilled staff and significant infrastructure. Both of which are far more accessible to incumbents, who have existing relationships with political professionals and the financial resources to pay and retain staff throughout the entire election cycle. Challengers must first raise the funds before they can build a campaign from scratch.

In some cases, political party infrastructure actively tries to further hinder the success of challenger candidates. In 2019, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced it would break ties with and blacklist consulting firms that worked with Democratic candidates challenging incumbent Democratic members of Congress. Democratic challengers are often women and people of color, and this ruling hindered their ability to access key campaign resources. Amy Pritchard, a Democratic campaign consultant said: “It is hard enough for challengers, for a lot of reasons, and this policy is a bridge too far. I’d like to see a majority of women in Congress, and it’s not going to happen with this policy.”

Campaign infrastructure, name id, and fundraising challenges aren’t the only barriers women face when running as challengers. They must also content with gerrymandered districts, being run as sacrificial lambs, and other extenuating circumstances like COVID-19.


Congressional and legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the federal census to ensure equal population distribution. Gerrymandering, the manipulation of district boundaries to unfairly benefit one political party over another, has become increasingly common. In many cases, this is done to create “safe seats” for incumbents, significantly reducing the likelihood that a challenger from an opposing political party can win. In 2020, only 41 of 435 seats (9.4%) were considered competitive general elections. Without competitive general elections, women must run in primaries against an incumbent of their own party, races that are often even more difficult to win. In 2020, only eight of 535 (1.5%) congressional incumbents were defeated in primaries and an incumbent senator has not lost a primary since 2012. Nearly half of incumbent members of Congress – 46% - did not even have a primary challenge in 2020. [6]

Women Running as Sacrificial Lambs

Political parties remain a key recruitment and screening mechanism for political candidates and can serve as a major hinderance to women’s political success. Parties recruiting for winnable seats are less likely to recruit women and are more likely to direct women to run for seats that are much harder to win – essentially having women run as sacrificial lambs. Party officials recruit candidates that are traditionally thought of as electable, a group that is largely white, wealthy, and male. However, recent history shows that women and people of color are viable and win, even in majority white districts. To reach parity, women must be recruited for competitive and winnable seats.


Even in a normal year, there is immense power in being an incumbent. But in a year as unusual as 2020, the incumbent advantage is even more powerful as candidates were unable to meet voters in person through door knocking, forums, and other highly effective methods of in-person campaigning. This was even more detrimental to women candidates, who disproportionately took on the increased care giving responsibilities as schools closed and children were home full-time. With less time to campaign, reduced access to voters, news cycles dominated by the COVID crisis and the highly contentious presidential election, it was harder than ever for women challengers to break through and unseat incumbents. Randi Reed, a Republican who ran for Congress in 2020, said:

“I was the only mom in the campaign. Now all of a sudden, I became a homeschool teacher to my second grader. And so part of my day was not doing the calls to the district like I should have been, just being in touch. It was helping my son navigate.”


If we continue at the same rate of change that we have seen over the past century, women will not reach political parity for nearly 100 years. It is inconceivable for women have to “wait their turn” until men retire for seats to become open. This will only result in an even more protracted rate of change. Donors, campaign professionals, party officials, and other stakeholders must be willing to invest in women challenging incumbents to accelerate the rate of change toward gender parity. Until there is structural change, fundraising, name recognition, and gerrymandering will remain persistent barriers to equal representation. The Ascend Fund is working to reduce the barriers women face when running for office by establishing a pathway for women to elected office and providing them with the tools, training, and resources they need to win.

[1] Center for American Women in Politics, History of Women in U.S. Congress

[3] Center for Responsive Politics, Incumbent Advantage

[4] Open Secrets, Members of Congress List


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