DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It was among the first states to legalize gay marriage and served as the 2008 campaign liftoff site for the first black president, but in other arenas Iowa isn’t quite so progressive — it’s also one of just two states to never elect a woman governor or member of Congress.
The other is Mississippi, a fact that causes a certain amount of handwringing among Iowa’s political classes.
With Senate and House seats open in 2014 in the wake of Sen. Tom Harkin’s decision to retire, many think this could be the time for a woman to finally break through. But after several high-profile possibilities have taken themselves out of consideration — most recently Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds opting out of a Senate run — the prospects are unclear.
“I’m frustrated. I’m disappointed. I’m irritated. I was certainly hoping we would have female candidates for top offices. It appears to me that it is not going to happen,” said Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat who was the state’s first woman candidate for governor in 1982 and ran again for U.S. Senate in 2010.
Just why Iowa lags behind is a bit of a head-scratcher.
“In some ways it is baffling because it’s not that it’s not an open-minded state,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s a state with an active women’s political community.”
Iowa’s neighboring states have women in top political positions. Wisconsin just elected Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Nebraska voted in Sen. Deb Fischer. Sen. Amy Klobuchar represents Minnesota and Sen. Claire McCaskill is in Missouri. And Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota and Missouri all have women in the U.S. House.
“I just don’t know that there’s a magic answer because if there was, we would have found it,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Tyler Olson, a state representative from Cedar Rapids. “It’s embarrassing, it really is.”
Experts cite many possible reasons that Iowa politics remains a boys club. There’s the lack of term limits for the governor’s office and the low turnover of the state’s congressional seats, meaning there are rarely open seats for women to pursue. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is on his second stint in the governor’s office, after a 16-year run that ended in January 1999. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has served 32 years and Harkin, a Democrat, for 28.
Academic research has also shown that, nationally, women are less likely to consider running for office because of family responsibilities or a perception that they are not qualified. And veteran women politicians also say that many Iowa voters hold traditional views about gender roles, perhaps a legacy of the state’s small-town farming roots.
“Part of it is historic feeling that politics is a male’s job,” said Maggie Tinsman, a former Republican state senator who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1996 and is co-founder of a group geared at electing women called “50/50 in 2020.” ”We’re doing a lot to try and change that. ”
Still, other rural states with even more conservative leanings have elected women to powerful jobs. In the 2010 governor’s race in Oklahoma, both candidates were women. Kansas, Texas, Louisiana and Nebraska have all had women governors. Women senators are representing Nebraska, North Dakota and Louisiana.
Nationally, the number of women in top elected positions is mostly growing. There are 98 women in the current Congress — 20 in the Senate. That’s about 18 percent of the total 535 seats in Congress. Twenty years ago there were 54 women in Congress.
The interest from advocacy groups and the political classes in changing the gender divide in Iowa politics means that viable women candidates hear a lot of sweet-talk, according to Democratic state Sen. Liz Mathis.
A well-known former news anchor from the Cedar Rapids area who was first elected in 2011, Mathis was seen as a top option to run in the state’s 1st Congressional District after U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley announced he’d seek Harkin’s Senate seat. Mathis said she was showered with attention from lawmakers and advocates who told her she would be making history if she won.
“I was really conflicted,” she said. “Everyone put the expectation on me.”
But Mathis, who has a daughter in high school, decided she didn’t want to leave her family or her relatively new role in the state Senate. She said she knows she may not get another such opportunity.
“I guess it just depends on what you think success is,” Mathis said.
Reynolds — viewed as a rising star in the Iowa GOP — also said she made her decision based on her personal interests.
“Nobody else gets to decide what the right time is for me. I get to decide that,” said Reynolds, whom Branstad seems to be grooming for an eventual run for governor.
There are some women still pondering entering the open Senate and congressional races in Iowa, though no definite candidates have emerged.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University, said women need to be prepared to run when there are open seats, noting that studies show women need more persuasion but are just as successful as men when they don’t face an incumbent.
“Women need to be more strategic,” Bystrom said. “I’m working with several women’s organizations across the state to develop benches of women that are ready to run.”
Associated Press reporter Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.