NOEL KING, HOST:
Voters in the U.S. have not always seen women and men as equals in politics. Research has shown that women running for office have to work extra hard to be seen as likable and to prove their qualifications. But in a year when women are particularly energized about politics, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben explores whether being a woman could give some candidates an edge.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Mary Wilson raised just $40,000 ahead of the Democratic primary in the Texas 21st Congressional District. She bested three men who raised far more money than she did. And now, Wilson's headed into a runoff against an opponent who raised 19 times as much as her. In her opinion, being a woman in 2018 in particular works to her advantage.
MARY WILSON: If I would have thought about doing this 10 years ago, I don't think I would have been as successful as I was on Election Day this year.
KURTZLEBEN: She spoke to me from her office at Church of the Savior near Austin where she's a minister. Her poodle, Louie, had come with her to work that day.
WILSON: There's something about this time and this wave of emotion and resistance and frustration.
KURTZLEBEN: Plenty of factors contributed to Wilson's win. For example, she says voters like how she talks about politics as an avenue for people to care for one another. But still, her comments raise the question - do women candidates have an advantage this year over other years?
CELINDA LAKE: The answer is yes but not always.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
LAKE: In all this cacophony and chaos, women are grabbing people's attention. They communicate change. And they mobilize more peripheral women voters who tend to support women candidates.
KURTZLEBEN: Those factors tend to benefit Democrats in particular. With Republicans controlling Congress and a majority of state legislatures, Democrats want more change. On top of that, there's one more gaping partisan divide, according to Republican pollster Christine Matthews.
CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: There is a very big difference between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans on the importance of electing more women candidates. And for Democrats, it's just a significantly higher priority.
KURTZLEBEN: She points to a January CBS News poll, which found that 84 percent of Democratic women think that more women in political office would make the country better compared to 19 percent of Republican women. Regardless of party, voters have been found to treat women and men differently on both style and substance.
MATTHEWS: Women candidates generically have an advantage on health care. That's one of the issues that is attributed to women candidates.
KURTZLEBEN: And health care is one of the top concerns for voters going into this year's midterms. The ultimate effect of gender on voter choices this November may well be minimal. After all, Lake says, Americans overwhelmingly vote based on party.
LAKE: Ninety percent of the vote is determined by party identification. But in all these close elections, that 10 percent margin can make a difference.
KURTZLEBEN: And to the degree that gender does affect votes, many voters don't even realize it's happening.
LAKE: They don't store it that way. But then when you ask why did you vote for Susie Smith, they'll say, well, she was in touch with my life. She was really exciting. She represented change.
KURTZLEBEN: For her part, Mary Wilson doesn't want her gender to weigh on voters' choices too much.
WILSON: I don't want you to vote for me simply because I'm a woman. I want you to vote for me because I'm a qualified female candidate. And we need more qualified women in Congress.
KURTZLEBEN: But she knows that being a woman may help her stand out. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLADYS LAZER'S "VERONICA")
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