LAS VEGAS — When Chris Giunchigliani told former Senator Harry Reid about her plans to run for governor of Nevada in 2018, he candidly told her that he thought her opponent, Steve Sisolak, would make a stronger candidate, Ms. Giunchigliani recently recalled.
Mr. Reid, the former Senate Democratic leader, was even blunter when he warned the president of Emily’s List, Stephanie Schriock, that the Democratic women’s group would be inviting disaster if they spent heavily for Ms. Giunchigliani, according to two Democrats who described the private conversation on condition of anonymity.
Were Ms. Giunchigliani, a veteran officeholder and outspoken liberal, to be nominated, Mr. Reid said, the casino executives who dominate Nevada politics would not only throw their support to Adam Laxalt, the likely Republican candidate for governor — they would also work to wrest control of the state Legislature away from Democrats.
His plea fell on deaf ears. Emily’s List polled the race, found Ms. Giunchigliani could be competitive and has spent about $2 million on her candidacy, lifting her into contention. Ms. Giunchigliani now faces an uphill primary election here on Tuesday against the better-funded Mr. Sisolak — and while Mr. Reid was focused on ideology, she attributes some of the resistance to her campaign to her gender.
“It takes a lot of work to prove to people that you have that credential,” Ms. Giunchigliani said, recounting her years in the Legislature, on the Clark County Commission and a stint as head of the Nevada Education Association. Riding in an aide’s Ford Escape last week, between an hour of evening canvassing in searing heat and a reception with gay and lesbian supporters, Ms. Giunchigliani argued, “Sometimes a man can just say, ‘I’m a businessman’ whether they are or aren’t. And no one questions that, whereas a woman has to still prove it.”
Ms. Giunchigliani is not the only Democratic woman trumpeting her readiness for high office in a difficult governor’s race this week. Even as women have emerged as the animating force behind the backlash to President Trump, with many storming to victory in congressional primaries, several are finding governor’s races to be more challenging as they struggle to build as much political and financial support as their male rivals.
From Tuesday through September, female candidates for governor will be on the ballot in Democratic primaries across 17 states, including pivotal battlegrounds such as Florida, Wisconsin and Colorado — part of the record number of women running for governor this year. In interviews, several said they are facing entrenched resistance to female power at the executive level, and male opponents with deeper campaign coffers and, in some cases, far less political experience.
Far from the Nevada desert, Maine’s attorney general, Janet Mills, delivered a more bluntly feminist message on Friday. Ms. Mills began her campaign for governor as a front-runner but has faced difficult competition from both male and female opponents ahead of Maine’s primary on Tuesday. Her strongest challenger appears to be Adam Cote, a military veteran and businessman running as an outsider. So, in the shadow of the state Capitol in Augusta, Ms. Mills sought to rally women to her side.
Describing her background as a district attorney and legislator, Ms. Mills cast gender as central to her campaign and portrayed her opponents’ attacks as part of an all-too-familiar trap for women.
“Now, men say: ‘Well, you have a great résumé, but you’re kind of an insider,’” Ms. Mills said, to groans from a predominantly female crowd of about four dozen. “Really? For decades, men were telling women: ‘Just a little more experience and you’ll be qualified.’”
She finished with gusto: “Well, goddamn it, I am qualified!”
A year and half after Hillary Clinton failed to win the highest executive office, there have been a few signal victories for Democratic women in governor’s races: Stacey Abrams in Georgia became the first black woman ever nominated for governor there, defeating another woman in May. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico dispatched male opponents in a Democratic primary last week to become her party’s first Latina nominee for governor, and women have been nominated in longer-shot races for governor in Texas and Idaho.
But in several of the biggest states on the map, women have strained to break through or appear at risk of falling behind. Some may win despite being outspent by male opponents, but the financial disparity points to the lingering institutional barriers confronting female candidates who try to crack the glass ceiling of the statehouse dome.
“You can’t wait to be asked because a lot of guys won’t ask you,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor. “You have to crash the party and, if there’s an opening, go for it because a lot the party organizations are run by the old boys.”
Ms. Sebelius helped recruit a female protégé, Laura Kelly, to run for governor in her home state. But there are relatively few former female governors to clear the path for others. While women have led major states in the past — such as Ann Richards in Texas, Janet Napolitano in Arizona and Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey — only four serve as governors today, two of whom inherited the job after male governors resigned. Twenty-two states, including Nevada and Maine, have never had a female chief executive, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
State capitols remain dominated by self-perpetuating male political networks that determine who is groomed and promoted — and the outsiders who do force their way into the nominating process are often rich men wielding fortunes.
The summer primaries will test Democrats’ enthusiasm for electing female executives: In Colorado, Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer who would be the state’s first female governor, is battling Representative Jared Polis, a multimillionaire who has spent $10.5 million. In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislative leader, is battling Shri Thanedar, a businessman with no political experience who is pouring millions into his own campaign, and Abdul El-Sayed, a liberal insurgent.
Ms. Whitmer at first struggled to win support from the unions that control much of the state’s Democratic infrastructure. And some officials openly questioned the wisdom of putting forward another woman for governor — Jennifer Granholm ran the state until 2011 — which infuriated female strategists.
And in Florida, Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress whose father was a revered governor and senator, is trailing in the polls to Philip Levine, the wealthy mayor of Miami Beach who has personally financed an enormous advertising blitz.
Faced with the onslaught, Ms. Graham has started more directly invoking her gender.
“Everything I do is through the prism of being a mom,” she said in an ad she began airing last week.
In an interview, Ms. Graham said women “bring a different approach” to politics and mused excitedly about the prospect of her and Ms. Abrams being neighboring governors together.
At the moment, there are just two Democratic women governors: Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and Kate Brown of Oregon. Ms. Raimondo faces a potentially bruising re-election fight, including a primary challenge from a liberal male opponent, Matt Brown.
Ms. Raimondo said she was hopeful that 2018 would see breakthroughs for women in governorships, but that the country’s political culture had been slow to embrace female executives. Ms. Raimondo said she had counseled a number of women around the country on their decisions to run, and had raised the paucity of female Democratic governors with party donors — many of whom, she said, were unaware of that reality and have historically been more focused on Congress.
“We just haven’t seen a lot of high-profile female executives,” Ms. Raimondo said. “We just need more of them. It has to become more commonplace for people to feel really, deeply comfortable with it.”
Ms. Giunchigliani got a stark reminder of the challenges women can face when she was rebuffed by Mr. Reid, who in retirement remains the de facto leader of the Nevada Democratic Party.
Mr. Reid has helped clear the way for women in other races, including Nevada’s Senate races in 2016 and 2018. But this episode of backstage politics — on which he would not comment — reflects a deeper challenge for women candidates for governor: They rarely are the anointed ones.
“They almost always have primaries because they are almost always in situation where aspects of the establishment just can’t get their head around what a governor should be,” said Ms. Schriock of Emily’s List. “We get the old, ‘Yeah, she doesn’t feel quite right.’”
In Maine, supporters of Ms. Mills fear what they view as a repeat of the 2016 election, when a thoroughly well-credentialed woman lost to an aggressive male amateur.
Nancy Wanderer, a retired law professor who applauded Ms. Mills at her rally on Friday, seethed at what she described as “unfair” nit-picking by fellow Democrats and the news media. “I think it’s just like Hillary,” Ms. Wanderer said.
Ms. Mills has presented herself as a tough-minded corrective to the unpopular outgoing governor, Paul R. LePage, a Republican aligned with Mr. Trump. But she has faced criticism for being insufficiently liberal on issues like gun control, where Ms. Mills has stopped short of endorsing a ban on assault-style firearms.
Ms. Mills said in an interview she was seeking “common ground” on gun issues, and in a debate last week described having been threatened in her youth by an abusive partner with a firearm.
Ms. Giunchigliani, too, has invoked her own harrowing personal story in her bid to become Nevada’s first female governor.
Responding to an attack from Sisolak supporters that claimed she sought to exempt teachers from a legislative proposal to expand reporting requirements for sex offenders, she unveiled a commercial revealing she had been sexually abused when she was 8.
Ms. Giunchigliani — who has gone by “Chris G” since teaching middle school and spells out the pronunciation, “June-kill-e-on-e,” on business cards — has closed a spending gap in her bid to succeed the term-limited Gov. Brian Sandoval. She still trails Mr. Sisolak, her fellow county commissioner, in private polling, but got a boost over the weekend when Hillary Clinton endorsed her and taped an automated call on her behalf.
And thanks to outside allies like Emily’s List and the state chapter of the National Education Association, she has drawn closer to parity on Nevada’s airwaves ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
As for those casinos Mr. Reid predicted would oppose her in November, she predicted a softer approach.
“This is Nevada,” she said. “They’ll cover their bets.”
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