There are 16 states where every representative to the U.S. House is a man.
The opposite dynamic — a state represented entirely by women in the House — is far less common. In the only two states with an all-female House delegation — Wyoming and Delaware — there is only one such seat.
In its primary Tuesday, New Mexico is expected to begin the process of electing a historically diverse group of representatives. In the general election, the state will almost certainly elect three women, the largest all-female House delegation in history.
All three are likely to be women of color.
“These institutions continue to be dominated by white men who are incumbents, creating what we call ‘blank spots of women,’” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Maybe now we’re finally reaching a point where having an all-female delegation could be more normal than it’s been in the past.”
The possibility of an all women-of-color delegation feels particularly momentous, said Dittmar. Twenty-six states have never sent a woman of color to Congress.
Barring something extremely unexpected, “it seems quite clear at this point” that New Mexico will elect three women to the House, said Ben Ray, deputy communications director for Emily’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing women who support abortion access.
In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is expected to hold her seat in a solidly Democratic district, after winning in 2018 with over 59 percent of the vote. Haaland, one of the country’s first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, was part of the wave of newly elected women to join the House in 2018.
While New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District is widely considered a toss-up, the major Democratic and Republican competitors are all women: Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), also elected in 2018, will likely face either former state Rep. Yvette Herrell or oil executive Claire Chase.
In the third district, represented by a Democrat since 1999, seven candidates will compete for an open seat in the Democratic primary. The two major contenders are women: former CIA agent Valerie Plame and attorney Teresa Fernandez Leger. The most recent poll, from Emily’s List, put Fernandez Leger, who is Latina, nine points ahead of Plame.
New Mexico is well-positioned to elect a historically diverse House delegation, said Dittmar: It’s a majority-minority state, with significant Latinx and Native American populations. While women of color can certainly win in less racially diverse areas — nearly 40 percent of the women of color elected in 2018 were from majority-white districts — a diverse electorate helps, Dittmar says. It’s also important that two of New Mexico’s three congressional seats lean heavily Democratic. While there are far more Republican women running in 2020 than ever before, Democrats are still more likely to elect women.
Representation spurs more women to run, said Dittmar: When Haaland and Torres Small ran and won in 2018, other female candidates were likely encouraged to try to do the same. In the third district, Fernandez has known Haaland for over 20 years, she says. As an attorney for tribal sovereignty, Fernandez represented Haaland’s tribe, the Laguna Pueblo.
“The idea of being able to join [Haaland and Torres Small] — to create a team with them — was very inspiring to me,” she said.
Women of color have been successful at many different levels of government in New Mexico, says Dittmar, providing powerful examples for future candidates. Most notably, two of the three female governors in U.S. history — Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Republican governor Susana Martinez — have hailed from New Mexico. (The third is former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.)
Perhaps even more important than a diverse set of elected officials is a diverse group of “gatekeepers,” said Dittmar.
“Who makes decisions on recruitment and support? Do you have people in those positions who value diversity and representation?’”
For years before she was elected to Congress, Haaland was the leader of New Mexico’s Democratic Party.
“That’s telling,” said Dittmar. Haaland has consistently supported greater gender, racial and ethnic diversity in politics.
Some will inevitably criticize the all-female delegation in New Mexico, said Dittmar, arguing that men need representation too. Dittmar can see that perspective, she says, but remains unconvinced.
“There are men from other delegations who continue to dominate Congress,” she said.
Over 75 percent of Congress is male.
“I think there are other men who can act as surrogates for the men from New Mexico.”
Fernandez isn’t surprised that New Mexico is positioned to elect this historic House delegation. The state has a long tradition of women who take on positions of leadership, she says. Going back generations, they’ve had to help their families survive on land in “harsh environments,” where water is often scarce and it can “be difficult to eek out a living,” she said. Many Native American communities in New Mexico are also matrilineal societies, said Fernandez, passing property and traditions down through women, rather than men.
“We haven’t been pampered,” Fernandez said. “People will tell you: Women are strong here.”