Could California’s Next Governor Be Female?

Feinstein won a bruising Democratic primary for governor in 1990, defeating a well-known male front-runner, John Van de Kamp, but lost the general election to a Republican senator, Pete Wilson, as Iraq was invading Kuwait and the state was sliding into a recession. When Meg Whitman, a Republican technology executive, lost her bid for governor in 2010, when California was increasingly liberal and struggling to emerge from the global financial crisis, Jerry Brown’s triumph was perceived less as a referendum on her gender than as one on her party, her staggering campaign spending and his enduring popularity among Democrats.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said one reason California has yet to elect a female governor might be that in past decades, neither state party prioritized developing and positioning female officeholders.

“The men in power kind of line up and get out there early,” Walsh said. “I think it’s easy to fall into the trap that you never have to think about gender equity in a liberal state like California, but in fact, you do.”

In recent years, more women have run and been elected, buoyed by focused political initiatives and, experts say, cultural drivers such as the #MeToo movement and the effort to preserve abortion rights. Mary Hughes, founder of Close the Gap, a campaign to achieve gender equality in the State Capitol, said her group had helped raise the proportion of female legislators to about 42 percent from about 22 percent in 2016.

More women may end up at the top of the 2026 state ticket. Representatives Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, for example, are among the top contenders, alongside Representative Adam Schiff, to succeed Feinstein in the Senate next year; depending on the outcome of that race, one or more of them may pivot to campaign for governor. Toni Atkins, the president pro tempore of the State Senate, and Fiona Ma, the state treasurer, have signaled plans to run for lieutenant governor.

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