Stacey Abrams’ Landmark Victory, Placed in the Historical Context of Gubernatorial Nominations

Stacey Abrams’ election yesterday as the nominee for governor of Georgia is being widely reported as an opportunity for her to become the first Black woman to be governor of any state ever, and for that alone, it is worth celebrating. And indeed, the fact that no Black women have ever been governor is a little terrifying, but something we have a chance to rectify.
But if we dig a little deeper, we start to find that the exclusion of Black women from this particular elected office isn’t a result of them failing in the general elections: Abrams is the first Black woman ever nominated by a major party to be governor. Indeed, if you look closely at the statistics of gubernatorial nominations and elections across the country, it isn’t difficult to find the same narratives about systemic exclusion of women, and particularly women of color.
Here are some of the lowlights:
  • Abrams is not only the first Black woman to be nominated by a major party for governor in the state of Georgia and the first Black woman to be nominated as a gubernatorial candidate nationwide, she’s the first woman of any race to be nominated by a major party for governor in the state of Georgia.
  • Abrams is also the first nonwhite nominee for governor of Georgia.
  • Only two women of color have ever served as governor: Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Susana Martinez in New Mexico (both Republicans).
  • The total number of women of color who have been nominated by a major party as a gubernatorial candidate is seven. On January 1 of this year, that number was four.
  • Other than Haley and Martinez, the only other women of color nominated in previous years to be a gubernatorial candidate by a major party were both from Hawaii: Mazie Hirono (D) in 2002 and Pat Saiki (R) in 1994.
  • Other than Abrams, this year has seen Lupe Valdez (TX-D) and Paulette Jordan (ID-D) nominated as gubernatorial candidates. Jordan is the first Native American woman to be a gubernatorial nominee.
  • The only other non-API Native American to be nominated for governor is Larry EchoHawk, who also ran as a Democrat in Idaho (1994).
  • There have been 2497 governors of the 50 states.
  • Excluding women who were nominated as surrogates for their husbands, there have only been 97 women who have been gubernatorial nominees in the entire history of the United States. (I am including Nellie Tayloe Ross, who won a special election to finish out her husband’s term in 1924 but ran in her own right in 1926, but not Lurleen Wallace or Ma Ferguson.)
  • Of the 94 whose general elections have already happened (those 97 minus Abrams, Jordan, and Valdez), only 29 of them were ultimately elected. Even fewer (13) were reelected.
  • Seven states (Alabama, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Utah) have still never had a female gubernatorial candidate on a major party line.
  • Including Abrams, Valdez, and Jordan, there have only been 50 non-white nominees for governor in the history of the United States. 21 of those nominees come from either New Mexico or Hawaii, two of the newest states in the Union.
  • 27 states have never seen a nonwhite nominee for governor.
  • Four states (Alabama, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Utah) have seen only white male nominees for governor in their entire history.
  • Twenty-four states have never elected a governor that was not a white man.
  • There have only been fourteen gubernatorial elections where neither major party nominated a white man. Seven of those occurred in either New Mexico or Hawaii.
  • The first such election occurred in New Mexico in 1918, when the major party candidates were Octaviano Larrazolo and Felix Garcia. It did not happen again until 1986, when Nebraskans nominated two white women.
  • Hawaii is the only state where white men comprise fewer than 80% of the major-party gubernatorial nominees (47%). New Mexico is next, at 81%. No other state has had women and minorities, combined, make up more than 10% of their nominees (Arizona and Washington are third and fourth, at 90% and 91% respectively.)
  • The most insidious thing I’ve found is that women tend to be nominated by the parties at times when the party is far out of power—the times during which you’d expect them to feel like they have nothing to lose. Of the 97 women nominated for governor, 40 of them were nominated when their party was at least two terms removed from the governor’s office. (Several more were nominated by parties that were clear minorities in that state at the time, but directly on the heels of a popular term-limited governor of the same party.)

I’ve heard people ask, perhaps innocently, perhaps not, what the party can do for Black women in exchange for them continuing to show up for the party time and time again. Consider these terrifying statistics the next time you see a Black woman (or any WOC) running for office and your first instinct is to worry about their general election viability. The sample size is so small that any impulses to doubt the viability of women of color in a statewide general election cannot be reasonably founded on their past performance.

Representation is not a panacea. But it matters.

The work continues.

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