Colorado has a dismal record when it comes to electing women to high office: It joins Idaho, Indiana, Virginia and Pennsylvania as the five states that have never had a woman governor or senator.
But the 2020 U.S. Senate race is seen as a game changer, say women lawmakers and operatives. In a state where President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular and Democrats now control all state executive offices and the legislature, incumbent Republican Cory Gardner is vulnerable, and, many are asking, what better opportunity for Colorado to make up for lost time and put a woman in the seat?
There are several signs that the tide is turning. For the first time, women are a majority in the Colorado House, where they’ve also held the speakership for the past three sessions. Overall, women make up 47 percent of both chambers in Colorado, second only to Nevada, which this year set historic highs for women in U.S. statehouses.
Nationally, women are more politically active, and Democratic women, in particular, cleaned up in the midterms — women won more than 100 House seats — while women such as Kate Greenberg (Colorado’s first female agriculture chief), Jena Griswold (Colorado’s first female, Democratic secretary of state) and Susana Cordova (the first Latina to lead Colorado’s largest school district) are changing the landscape locally, trailblazing in executive and high-profile political jobs.
And, finally, two millennial women with diverse professional resumes — scientist Trish Zornio and nonprofit boss Lorena Garcia — are running for the Senate, while two other women under 40 with statehouse experience — former House Speaker Crisanta Duran and state Sen. Kerry Donovan — are being encouraged to run. Duran said Thursday she’ll announce her decision “very, very soon,” while Donovan suggested she’s taking more time to mull it over. Others may yet get in the race, which has only just begun to take shape.
The only woman in Colorado’s D.C. delegation, longtime Denver Rep. Diana DeGette, is being encouraged to run but is not thought to be seriously considering it.
“We have many smart and capable women in this state who I know would do a tremendous job … in the U.S. Senate,” the congresswoman said in a statement, “and I am actively encouraging them to run.”
Burden of proof
Zornio, 33, is a scientist who’s worked in hospitals, clinics and universities, doing research on disease and treatment. She traveled the state for more than three years in an exploratory mode before announcing her candidacy at this year’s Women’s March.
She said she’s running because she doesn’t see anyone who looks or thinks like her in the Senate. She’s six years younger than the youngest sitting senator.
“I look to my federal government and I see only men making my health care decisions,” Zornio said. She’s been frustrated watching Senate committee hearings on science issues, presided over by a committee without a single trained scientist on it.
“Can you imagine a Judiciary Committee without any lawyers?” she said.
Garcia, too, has expertise and interests not often seen in the Senate or represented in Colorado’s Democratic establishment, which has mostly delivered white, moderate, business-friendly men — two of whom may seek the presidency.
The 36-year-old Garcia, a seventh-generation Coloradan, is the director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. She ran an international development organization that worked in Nepal and Nicaragua. She was the state director for the working women’s group, 9 to 5; president of the Women’s Lobby in Colorado; and executive director for the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.
Like Zornio, she’s frustrated that her resume, extensive as it may be, could leave anyone unsure of her qualifications.
“I’ve been involved in crafting policy, I’ve been in negotiation rooms. I’ve led legislators on how to address issues and I’ve brought policies from directly affected communities to the Capitol,” Garcia said. “But I know I’m still going to have to prove my viability in this race.”
She says her experience is part of a broader problem.
“When women, and especially women of color, are vying for positions of leadership, we have to prove ourselves to be taken seriously. Others have to just show up,” Garcia said. “Men are expected to achieve greatness, to be CEOs and bosses and senators.”
Zornio said she’s been disappointed by how often she’s met with sexism rather than seriousness on the campaign trail. And it’s bipartisan. Democrats, she said, have called her “cute,” asked her on dates and told her what “a great daughter-in-law” she’d make. She said on more than one occasion people have told her it’s good she’s not a candidate and a mom, because being both at once would be impossible.
Zornio’s political predecessors — Gail Schoettler, Colorado’s first female lieutenant governor, who ran for governor in 1998, and Josie Heath, who ran for Senate in 1990 — said they heard some of the same things during their campaigns.
“When I ran, I’d already won three statewide races,” Schoettler said, “and people still told me a woman couldn’t win.”
The fact that there are two women in the race so early and at least two others considering it is itself historic; not only has Colorado never sent a woman to the Senate, but it’s never had more than one woman so much as appear on a primary ballot for the seat.
And while there’s clearly a combination of reasons for this perennial barrier, experts seem to agree on the antidote.
“In order to elect women to the highest-profile offices, you need women to run for those offices,” said Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia professor who’s written extensively on the connection between political ambition and gender.
Research she and others have done shows that women are just as likely as men to become candidates when they are encouraged to run. When they run, they have a good chance of winning; Democratic women won about half of their congressional races in 2018, though Republican women only won about a quarter of theirs. And history shows women lawmakers are typically as good or better than men, on average, at crafting and passing laws, and at working in bipartisan fashion.
The best path to high-level office, including the Senate and the governorship, Lawless said, is holding a lower political office — mayor or state legislator, for example. And she added that while political scientists have found little evidence of an overtly sexist ruling class that excludes women from this political pipeline, they’ve also found little evidence of any strong, historical establishment desire to support women.
“What we end up seeing is people end up recruiting people from their own networks, and the gatekeepers tend to be white men, and the people in their networks tend to be white men, so part of it is they’re just not exposing themselves to as many women who’d be situated to run,” Lawless said.
Schoettler, Heath and the Colorado women running for Senate in 2020 all said they believe this blindness can be attributed largely to implicit bias that men are inherently more prepared to hold high office than women.
There are already two well-known men in Colorado’s 2020 race: former educator and state Sen. Mike Johnston, who placed third in the Democratic primary for governor last year, and Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House who’s run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate (2010) and Congress (2014), and most recently led Mental Health Colorado.
Johnston and Romanoff, both white men, have generated the most headlines among those who’ve announced. Superficially, the two have a lot in common: they’re both young and charismatic, and they both saw their stars rise at the statehouse. Both ran for major seats and lost. And both told The Independent they’re running because they believe they’re the most qualified person for the job.
The two announced women candidates both called into question what they see as a political apparatus that tends to promote resumes like Johnston’s and Romanoff’s while discarding young women who are similarly accomplished, albeit in different fields.
“If you run for statewide office, you will be more well known,” Zornio said. “But it’s a disservice to the public to not have an open discussion on who’s running, on who has expertise and what expertise looks like.”
Both she and Garcia have been getting token, one-line mentions in media reports about Colorado’s 2020 race.
“When women don’t already hold a position of power and then [media gatekeepers] say, ‘Well, you’re not high-profile enough, so we won’t feature your campaign just yet.’ and, ‘You have to prove it to us that you can do it.’ — there’s a real barrier. We end up in a situation where it’s hard to break through,” she said.
“I see myself there”
In 1998, a teen-age Kerry Donovan sat at home watching Schoettler on television.
For Donovan, who today represents Vail in the state Senate, Schoettler’s campaign for governor was an inspiration.
“There was a woman from Colorado on the national news, running for office. It was a big deal,” Donovan said.
That same year, Dottie Lamm, former first lady of Colorado, was the state’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. She lost to Ben Nighthorse-Campbell by 30 percentage points. Schoettler came much closer in her race — about half a point — but lost to Republican Bill Owens by about 8,000 votes.
Colorado hasn’t nominated a major-party female candidate for senator of governor since Lamm and Schoettler ran, even as it’s become a national leader in gender equity at the Capitol. There have been more Senate candidates from Colorado named Ken in the past 50 years than total female nominees for the seat.
“Is it that we haven’t had the right candidate? Is it sexism? Is it funding?” Donovan wondered aloud. The short answers are no, somewhat, and yes, political scientists have found.
An NPR national analysis just ahead of the recent midterms showed men far outraising women on average in the most competitive races, which could stem from the fact that about 80 percent of top political donors are men, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Responsive Politics. Nine of the top 10 political donors last year in Colorado were men, the Colorado Sun reported.
But research, which shows women who hold state legislative offices are more likely to hold higher offices, would suggest that Colorado’s cold streak will inevitably break — sooner than later, even if not in 2020 — simply because of the historic level of power women now hold at the state Capitol.
Those working to support women candidates also observe that there’s more of a lane today than ever before for would-be politicians who, like Zornio and Garcia, don’t fit the traditional mold or have never held prominent office before.
Michal Rosenoer runs Emerge Colorado, an organization that recruits and works with Democratic women candidates. She said one of the first aims of Emerge’s training course is to encourage women to “own” their stories and to eliminate self-doubt regarding their own qualifications, which is an important hurdle; women are much less likely than men to see themselves as being qualified to run for office, regardless of how much professional success they’ve had, Lawless has found.
“It’s very easy for a white man to grow up believing there’s an opportunity for them to make a difference in this country,” Rosenoer said. “They can look at pictures of Congress or legal offices and say, ‘I see myself there.’”
She and several others interviewed for this story theorized that donors, media members and politicians in positions to make influential endorsements often create a sort of self-perpetuating cycle that says a woman candidate isn’t viable or lacks the high profile needed to win a race. Consequently, those people pay that woman little attention and treat her with little seriousness, Rosenoer said, and sure enough, she’ll end up losing and those who doubted her from the start will be validated.
“The higher risk or higher consequence of the race, the more people are likely to say, ‘I haven’t seen a person like this in that office before,” Rosenoer said. “But that does become a self-fulfilling prophecy because women, and particularly women of color, are less likely to have already been seen in that level of office. And when the donor class decides maybe their candidacy is too risky, they head towards the white men.”
That’s changing in Colorado. The 2018 midterms, for example, saw the election of Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a gay 28-year-old Latina who’s worked as a school custodian and city councilor, and Brianna Titone, a transgender woman with a background in web development.
Their successes underscore Lawless’s thesis that there isn’t one specific path women need to take to gain political power; they just need to run.
If and when Donovan and Duran get into the race, they’ll instantly join Romanoff and Johnston as “high-profile” candidates. Duran, in particular, has a core of of connected supporters ready to get behind her, including Schoettler.
In recent interviews, neither Donovan nor Duran suggested it’s important to nominate a woman, specifically, to face Gardner in 2020.
“It’s important to continue to build a new generation of leaders from all backgrounds,” Duran said. “I think there’s more work to be done to make sure that every last glass ceiling is broken.”
“I think the conversation is, ‘Find the right candidate,’” Donovan said, “not, ‘Find a woman.’”
But Donovan added that “you’d like to think” it’s possible to accomplish both at once, even though Colorado never has before. Standing just outside the floor of the state Senate, she reflected on the fact that women now wield so much power at the Capitol but can count on one hand the number of times they’ve even been nominees for senator or governor.
“There seems to be a disconnect,” she said. “Colorado’s lagging behind.”