Sharing The Ticket: How Much Room Is There For Women Running Mates?

by Leah Askarinam December 2, 2019 · 8:49 AM EST

Republican Jane Swift stood for 40-seconds of applause before a crowd of supporters and announced the end of her campaign. “Serving as governor of this great commonwealth has been a great honor and a privilege, and one for which I will always be grateful,” Swift said, her voice occasionally breaking, in March 2002. After another standing ovation, she cleared her throat— “no more clapping until I get through this.” 

It was a sudden end to the political career of Massachusetts’ only female governor and the youngest female governor in history. Swift, who was elected lieutenant governor, ascended to the top office when Gov. Paul Cellucci was appointed ambassador. But when it came time to win an election for a full term in her own right, an ambitious male politician got in the way. 

“This is the hardest part,” she continued, taking a deep breath. “I also want to express my greatest appreciation to the numerous supporters, staff, and family who have stood by me.” Swift turned away from the audience to wipe her tears and eventually threw her support to the man who had challenged her in the primary: Mitt Romney.

“I did the kind of — better for my family, better for my kids, better for the party,” Swift said by phone this spring. “The truth is, I could not have beat someone with that kind of wealth, coming off a successful management of the Olympics, who was much more conservative at the time than I was. It was a realistic, pragmatic decision.” 

Swift’s experience is just one example of the tension women face when given the opportunity to run —  and potentially serve —  as lieutenant governor. It could lay the groundwork for higher office and significant public service. But there’s also a risk of being marginalized in the role for the sake of furthering a man’s career at the top. 

Agreeing to join a ticket isn’t limited to the state level. It’s likely that, if the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination is a man, he would pick a woman to be his running mate. While there isn’t much to analyze in terms of women’s experiences running for vice president, there’s plenty of material from women who have experience as running mates on gubernatorial tickets. 

The tag-team election of governor and lieutenant governor is already a fraught business. There’s no standard across the country for the responsibilities lieutenant governors take on, varying from running major state agencies to the sole task of remaining on standby in case of a vacancy. It’s a recipe for disputes about power and strategy. And gender dynamics can further complicate that already tricky relationship.

Failure to Launch?
For some, serving as lieutenant governor itself is the goal, a position that allows the office holder to perform a public service. But serving as lieutenant governor can also serve as a launching pad for a political future, helping candidates introduce themselves to voters and a powerful political network. Yet, most often, women who win gubernatorial races had previously served in different capacities. 

Currently, there are nine women governors. One-third of them had previously served as first in line of succession: Kay Ivey of Alabama and Kim Reynolds of Iowa were lieutenant governors, and Kate Brown was Oregon’s secretary of state. Of the remaining six, two previously served in the state Senate, two served in Congress, and one was state attorney general.

Last year, three female lieutenant governors who ran for the state’s top office either lost in the state primary or general election. None of the five women who won their first gubernatorial election in 2018 had previously served as lieutenant governor.

Inside Elections spoke with a dozen women who currently hold or previously held the office of lieutenant governor about their experiences campaigning as running mates and governing as second in command. 

While some of the barriers women lieutenant governors face are a result of the office itself, it’s impossible to isolate gender dynamics that prevent — or complicate — some women from feeling agency in their role. And most warned that, while the office itself could be fulfilling, it’s risky to bet on it serving as a stepping stone to higher office.

The Selection Process: A Balancing Act
In most cases, female lieutenant governors are picked in order to achieve “balance” on the ticket with a man. But that’s not necessarily the only reason a woman would be selected.  

“I was popular in the 8th congressional district, I wasn’t just a woman in the 8th congressional district,” said Yvonne Prettner Solon about her roots in rural Minnesota. Prettner Solon’s reputation in the northeast of the state made her an attractive running mate to multiple gubernatorial campaigns. She eventually chose to run with Mark Dayton and served as Minnesota’s lieutenant governor from 2011-15. Prettner Solon had previously served on the Duluth City Council for more than a decade and in the state senate since 2002.  

Sheila Simon, who served as Illinois lieutenant governor 2011-15, noted that Gov. Pat Quinn could have chosen other women to be his running mate but that she was the only credible option who lived outside of the Chicago/Cook County area. “His theory was, you gotta fish where the fish are,” Simon, a professor from downstate Carbondale, recalled. “He fished where the fish were, and I made it to all 102 counties.”

New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul had a similar approach. “My job was to man upstate, where I was better known, and to bring in the votes in the ticket,”  said the former congresswoman from western New York. “So, then we did a divide-and-conquer approach.”

So, Should Men Choose Women As Running Mates?
For Hochul, the answer is obvious. 

“We're at a point now where it's no longer tokenism because there are so many qualified women — overqualified women,” she said. “Now you can select a woman because she's the most qualified in addition to her gender. So gender isn't necessarily first. It's — does this person have the temperament? Do they have the people skills? Do they have the desire, do they have the fire in the belly, to run a tough election?” 

When the top of the ticket chooses a woman as his running mate, he’s also proving that his support of women is genuine rather than “lip service,” according to Hochul. “How can you not create an opportunity to show [the voters] how enlightened you are as a male candidate?” 

Former Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman agreed, though she added that that diversity should extend beyond gender to race. “ I think people need to see a balance, some kind of diversity,” she said. “I think those are the ways that you get a better view of our country and our state and our communities.”

When it comes to the electoral benefits of including women on the ballot, the answers were more mixed. On one hand, former Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne argued, the logic that being a woman is enough to earn support from female voters is faulty. When she competed in a primary that included multiple women, she heard people argue that if one of them dropped out, the remaining woman could consolidate female voters. “That’s implying the only thing women vote for is gender,” Lynne said.  “A woman who believes in Medicare-for-All and a woman who believes in the current system isn’t going to vote for me just because I’m a woman … I think it’s a spurious argument.”

New Jersey Republican Kim Guadagno, the first person to serve as lieutenant governor in the state’s history, also expressed concern that the running mate could, in time, be perceived as a position that was best suited for women. When she ran for governor, she chose a man as her running mate.  

“I picked somebody I thought I could get along with, someone I enjoyed and respected as a person, policy-wise, but it also was a factor that he was a man,” Guadagno said. “Because I didn’t want the lieutenant governor’s job to evolve into the — ‘Oh, he’s the gender pick, or the Hispanic pick, or the African-American pick.’ I hope that’s not what it turns out to be.”

The Transition to Governing 
Eventually, if the campaign is successful, the task of governing begins, and a strong partnership with the top of the ticket can help ensure a smooth transition. 

While consultants and staffers were happy with the advantages Swift brought the ticket, the work of governing was a different story. Swift believed that even the governor was occasionally frustrated when he had to remind staff to invite her to meetings. “Some of his own staff and some of his supporters were surprised that he followed through on his commitments to me, particularly whenever I would run into political headwinds,” she said. That led to sniping— which, she explained, “created a powerful stew, when you mix with gender perceptions, and that at times diminished my perceived value within the administration.”

Wyman, who served as chair of the National Lieutenant Governors Association from 2014-15, said that in many ways, there wasn’t a stark difference between the issues men and women faced as lieutenant governors— though sometimes, when two men shared the ticket, they formed a stronger relationship. “They've known each other beforehand,” Wyman explained. “They can say things to each other that they wouldn’t say to another woman.” 

And for some, being a woman in the role actually offered some perks. “Frankly, being the first woman [to hold that office in New Mexico], I think people were a little reluctant to beat up on me,” said Diane Denish, who was New Mexico’s lieutenant governor from 2003-2011.

But for many, there were a handful of drawbacks as well. 

“Was I more vulnerable because some of the narrative around me in media coverage was influenced by negatives stories due to my gender? Absolutely,” said Swift, the first governor to give birth in office. “But did I also at times have very positive media coverage because of my gender? … That’s absolutely true as well.”

Support from the Top
There was one thing all of the women agreed upon: support from the man at the top of the ticket was vital. And for most women, the governor was proactive in ensuring that his running mate was treated as an equal.

“First off, the governor has said to me and has said to the staff that anything the lieutenant governor asks is no different than if the governor asks himself,” said South Carolina Lt. Gov. Pam Evette, who hadn’t found sexism to be a problem during her term so far. “If you have a governor that sets the precedent, that makes all the difference in the world.” 

Nearly every woman lieutenant governor — often unprompted — mentioned having a discussion with the top of the ticket before agreeing to run in order to set expectations about what the role would involve. “I want it to be impactful, I don’t want it to be this ceremonious title,” Evette recalls telling Henry McMaster. When he told her that he’d like her to be in charge of economic development, that fit the bill. 

Plus, changes in South Carolina’s state constitution solidified new responsibilities for the lieutenant governor, allowing McMaster to assign responsibilities to the new second-in-command. When working with Evette to designate particular responsibilities, it didn’t hurt that he had previously served in the role himself. “He realizes that all anybody wants is the same respect he would have wanted,” Evette said.

Colorado’s Lynne had a similar experience, though she was appointed to the position rather than elected. When her predecessor resigned mid-cycle, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Lynne to the role — and gave her the added role of the state’s Chief Operating Officer.

“I took the job more to be the COO than to be the lieutenant governor,” Lynne said. “The governor had an opportunity to make a clear statement that this is the number two person. That doesn’t always exist in the governor or lieutenant governor diad.”

In Florida, on the other hand, the lieutenant governor is not delegated roles by statutes or the state constitution. That makes it incumbent upon the governor (now Republican Ron DeSantis) to decide how to utilize the office. Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said she clearly laid out her expectation that, were she to take the role, she would want to play a significant part. And that’s worked out well, she said. “I think he shared that vision as well, and that's evident by how he's approached governing and really involving me.” 

In fact, the flexibility that’s built into the position can allow the lieutenant governor some agency to decide her own role. “And it really allows me to get involved in things based on interest, based on need —  really based on issues that are permeating the day,” Nunez said.

But the opposite structure also has its benefits, too. In Indiana, the role of lieutenant governor is clearly defined in state law. “I knew what my role was going to be before I ever said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch said. “So there wasn’t a big discussion … because I already knew what I was going to be involved with.”

And for Crouch, that strategy worked. “We don't consider it two staffs,” she said. “We consider it one team, all working toward common goals.”

The Governor’s Shadow
But even with support from the top of the ticket, it’s easy to become overshadowed. On one hand, it’s expected that the lieutenant governor will take the passenger’s seat. But there are particular traps lieutenant governors can fall into that could hamper their political futures.

“I think that the nature of the beast is sometimes women are deferential to the men in the room,” Denish says. “And certainly [Gov. Bill] Richardson surrounded himself primarily with men and men advisors.”

Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall described sitting on the sidelines of a meeting with union representatives before Gov. Steve Sisolak asked her to sit with him at the front of the table. “Get up here! Why aren’t you sitting up here?” she recalled the governor telling her. Sisolak has also corrected people who address Marshall without the “polite form of address,” insisting that she be addressed as “lieutenant governor.” 

Multiple women warned that being the person who handles the details and process of governing rather than big-vision proposals can prevent them from developing their own profiles.

“You can also be the attack dog,” explained Swift, a self-described “policy wonk” who was also often responsible for enforcing discipline. 

“That’s one of the places where I think there’s peril for women because obviously you need to be tough — and need to be able to defend your positions and to debate vigorously things you believe in,” Swift added. But sometimes that role led her to be perceived as “that dreaded ‘b-word,’ sort of making enemies when you’re attacking without the other benefits of holding the top office.”

There’s no getting around the fact that the governor's message and profile is dominant. “The five most important words in the English language were: I. am. Not. the. Governor,” said Guadagno, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor and secretary of state from 2010-18. 

Guadagno mostly kept her disagreements with Gov. Chris Christie private, until she ran for governor in her own right and needed to be clear about her positions. She said she and Christie got along well — in fact, she believes that he asked her to run alongside him partially because he knew they would get along for the next four to eight years. 

For some women, pre-existing relationships and name ID from past government experience helped them carve out a separate image. Nunez argued that her eight years in the Florida state House, including as Speaker in her last term, gave her time to establish a separate image. “But, of course, [it’s] completely aligned with the governor, and representing him in many cases,” Nunez said. 

Prettner Solon, however, also came to office with a separate image but had an entirely different experience. For her, it felt like the governor was virtually obligated to choose a woman running mate to help win the campaign. But once the work of governing started, it became much trickier. 

“It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” she said. 

Most women discouraged using the platform as a stepping stone — emphasizing that the work was fulfilling but that it doesn’t guarantee a spot at the top of the ticket. “I did it, not to build a career, not as part of a plan,” Simon said. “But a planned career in politics is a funny idea anyway.”

Wyman didn’t encourage women to run for lieutenant as a stepping stone, either.  “Sometimes it doesn't work that way because you don’t have the full freedom to do what you want to do.”

After Simon served a term as lieutenant governor, she ran for Illinois state comptroller but fell short in the general election. Even so, Simon believes that had she not served as lieutenant governor, she would never have been able to run for statewide office, let alone receive 40 percent of the vote against a Republican incumbent. (Simon is from a political family — her dad was Sen. Paul Simon — but she argued that because she wasn’t from Cook County, she didn’t have a natural political base.) Swift described a similar situation: as a comparatively liberal Republican who is from the least populous part of the state, running with Cellucci offered a platform she didn’t otherwise see a means of accessing. 

But the very act of serving as lieutenant governor can make it difficult to campaign for governor. “It had some advantages because I was out in the public frequently,” Lynne said. “But I was in my office much more than in public …  I was still working nine hours a day as lieutenant governor, and other candidates who made the decision not to work in the year-plus leading up to the primary had the advantage.”

Lynne said that because she didn’t enter the role of lieutenant governor with plans to run for the top of the ticket, she delayed her decision, which prevented her from having an early conversation with the governor about how he could help her reach the top office. “You should want your lieutenant governor to be your next governor because they can carry out your legacy,“ according to Lynne.

Lynne ended up announcing she would run after a crowded primary had already formed. But by that time, it was too politically complicated for the governor to officially endorse her, she said. “If you have aspirations beyond the No. 2 job, it’s important to state that and to secure the support of your governor,” Lynne said. “Because that carries a lot.”

Even if Evette could have been elected to the governorship as a businesswoman without the stepping stone of lieutenant governor, that’s not a path she was interested in. “I couldn’t be that arrogant and think I can jump aboard and figure it out as I go, but I’m an accountant by trade, so I’m cautious.”

Marshall was one of several women who mentioned that she couldn’t be successful in her current job while she had her sights set on another office. ” “If I’m always worried about where I am tomorrow, I’m never in today, I’m never anywhere.” But that doesn’t mean Marshall is ruling out the governorship either. “Everyone always says, ‘Oh no, I have no aspirations,’” she said. “I wouldn’t be in politics if I had no aspirations.”

Dual Fates?
Not only can the office of lieutenant governor be a poor launching pad, it can also be a liability.

Some lieutenant governors had to navigate paths to victory that intentionally separated their images from those of the top of the ticket. Denish ran for the top spot while Richardson pursued a presidential run that turned off New Mexico voters. “My opponent spent all her time talking about him and very little talking about me,” Denish said. And separating herself from the top of the ticket, when she ran alongside Richardson, would be an ineffective argument.  

“You suffer from their political mistakes or governing philosophy whether you’re part of it or not,” she added. “It’s very hard to distance yourself.”

Guadagno found herself in a similar position when she ran for governor in 2017. Serving alongside Chris Christie, whose popularity plummeted in the state for various reasons, she said some suggested that she resign her position early in order to distance herself from the governor. But in the end, Guadagno believes her 2017 gubernatorial loss stemmed from a fundamental statewide advantage for Democrats in New Jersey, who benefited from higher registration, turnout, and funding.  “You have to admit — you cannot deny — that after eight years you’re connected to the governor you were lieutenant to,” Guadagno said.

The opposite could also be true, with the lieutenant governor receiving positive press because of the top of the ticket. Denish said that Richardson publicly gave her credit for her work with early childhood, helping her define her work beyond presiding over the state Senate. 

Going forward, Delaware Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long thinks that her connections to the sitting governor will help her in the future. “Being out campaigning with him was a strength,” she said. “And he has been very cognizant of my independence because he has been in this role. I think that makes the difference.”

“I would certainly run for governor, absolutely,” Hall-Long added. “It’s a natural step up. One of the constitutional mandates in our Delaware constitution is, God forbid something happens to the governor, you assume that position. So I feel as if I am capable and ready.”

Of course, the future of the lieutenant governor does not always depend on the popularity of the sitting governor. Wyman chose not to run for governor in 2018, while Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s popularity dipped into the teens. But she said her decision was not at all connected to the top of the ticket’s troubles in state. “I had so much experience prior, so that people kind of know me not as the LG or Dan Malloy’s running partner but as Nancy Wyman.”

Should Women Accept?
The lieutenant governors, when asked what advice they would give to a woman considering joining a presidential or gubernatorial ticket, offered a range of advice, spanning from how to handle concerns about spending time away from their children, to the best ways to establish statewide connections, to ensuring that the pieces are in place for the position to actually be fulfilling. 

“I was honest when I said I want to make sure I’m doing something impactful,” Evette explained. “If I’m stepping aside from my family and my business I feel like I’m doing something that’s rewarding.”

“Make sure that your voice is going to be heard, that it’s a partnership … especially in the positions of vice president of the United States, lieutenant governor of the state,” said Wyman. “You’ve got to know what’s going on because one minute later you become the governor or the president.” 

“Women will find 1,000 reasons to say no: take care of the family, you take care of making sure that the kids are up for school — they feel all these responsibilities. I do as well, I'm a mother,” said Hochul, who had preschool-aged children when she first ran for office. “But you also know that your kids are going to survive your run for public office.

 “Don't hesitate,” she said. “Just jump in and figure it out later. That's what guys do.”