Why Can’t the GOP Elect Women to Office?
Conservative PACs desperately trying to get more Republican women elected have their work cut out for them
Every election cycle Republican groups try to elect more women, and every cycle in which Democrats surge into power they fall further behind.
In 1993, after the original Year of the Woman, there were 14 Republican women in Congress, and 40 Democratic ones.
In 2007, after Democrats retook the House, there were 25 Republicans and 63 Democrats.
In 2019, after another Democratic wave year, there were 21 Republicans and 106 Democrats.
Congress is still far from achieving gender parity, but it’s Democrats that have made most of the progress in getting it anywhere close. Democratic women make up 83% of women elected to Congress, and if women were elected only at the rate Republican women are, all of Congress would still be about 4% female-even less than it was in 1992.
For conservative women, it’s still the 1980s.
The persistent inability of the GOP to elect women has stymied generations of political operatives and would-be politicians. But that hasn’t stopped conservative women from trying. And in 2020, a fresh group of faces will try again to roll the rock up the hill in the face of the substantial structural and political obstacles that have made the political distribution of women in the parties so enduringly unequal.
“The current situation is not sustainable,” says Kodiak Hill-Davis, the political director of Republican Women for Progress. “It is not representative of America. You’re not getting the diversity of voices in the room where you can craft policy outcomes.”
Republicans in Congress gained only one new female member in the 2018 midterm elections, West Virginia Rep. Carol Miller. Democratic women, by contrast, won more than three dozen House races. Republicans also lost nearly half of their female representation in the House, dropping from 23 to 13 congresswomen as the more moderate districts willing to elect GOP women fell to Democratic challengers. The numbers in the Senate are better, but still trail the Democrats: Only eight out of the 53 GOP senators are women, as compared to 17 of the 47 Democrats.
Nevertheless, Republicans are persisting: Following Democratic women’s huge haul in the midterms, a number of GOP organizations are intent on making a more concerted effort to bridge their party’s gender gap. Political action committees such as Republican Women for Progress, Value in Electing Women, and Elevate, a group launched by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik (who was the youngest congresswoman ever elected until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came along), seek to offer guidance and funding to aspiring GOP women.
“There are more PACs now for Republican women than we have seen in a long time. But none of them have the resources that an organization like EMILY’s List has.”
“We’re not supporting women just because they’re women. We’re supporting these candidates because they are qualified and because they are the best fits for their district. We want to see women who are going to be great members of Congress get sent to Washington,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, communications director of Winning for Women, which launched in 2017. “We want to make sure they have the resources they need to get there. And we want to make sure that if they’re up against someone in the left, especially a woman, that they are not out-resourced.”
If the PACs mentioned above sound unfamiliar, that’s no coincidence. Republican women-focused PACs simply don’t have the name recognition — or the dollars — that their left-leaning counterparts command.
EMILY’s List, which since 1985 has worked to elect pro-choice Democratic women, spent more than $100 million in the 2018 midterm elections alone. By contrast, the conservative Value in Electing Women, founded in 1997, spent around $1.9 million that same cycle.
“There are more PACs now for Republican women than we have seen in a long time,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “But none of them have the resources that an organization like EMILY’s List has. There is no PAC that can give [conservative women] that kind of money.”
That’s a real missed opportunity for Republicans. There are well-documented advantages to electing a woman to office: They sponsor and cosponsor more bills than their male colleagues, are more likely to work with their peers across the aisle, bring more spending to their districts, and are more inclined to work on legislation that actually affects the everyday lives of their constituents.
Still, the GOP’s open rejection of identity politics diminishes female candidates’ ability to call for more diversity in Congress. “The Republican party doesn’t acknowledge the value of identity politics — in fact it demonizes it,” said Walsh. “On the Democratic side, there’s an embracing of the idea that it’s important to have more women and more people of color. That difference makes it really hard to recruit [conservative women] or to raise money around bringing more diversity into politics.”
Part of the issue also stems from the values held by some of the most conservative factions of the party, which openly oppose the idea of women running for office. A 2018 Morning Consult poll found that Republican women themselves are four times more likely to prefer a male candidate. “Many of the most socially conservative voters out there don’t value, or maybe don’t find it appropriate for women to pursue high-level leadership positions,” explained Walsh. “These are places where the gender roles are more old-school, more rigid, and it makes it harder for women to break in.”
This is one of the reasons why Republican women have historically been more likely to win in swing districts instead of deep-red ones — and why the GOP can lose female representation when there’s a blue wave, where Democratic candidates can sweep up the more flippable seats.
And then, there’s the Donald Trump factor. In the Trump era, the GOP is returning to its roots as a party of white men (in fairness, all U.S. political parties were once the parties of white men). Polls have consistently found that a majority of women voters disapprove of the president. Trump’s Cabinet is less diverse than those of four of his predecessors, and the party’s pipeline of elected women leaders has been narrowing. Just 31% of women serving in state legislatures are Republican, down from 38% last year.
Republicans have, for decades, faced an uphill battle trying to attract women to run for office, thanks in part to primary electorates that gather the party’s most loyal and conservative voters at the same time that women running are viewed as being more moderate than their male counterparts, even when their record shows otherwise.
Add to this the fact that the GOP party machine generally stays out of primary challenges — even when an incumbent is not effective anymore. Hill-Davis, from Republican Women for Progress, says this is detrimental to female hopefuls’ chances. “We have to wait until they decide to retire or move on to other opportunities, and then maybe a woman is in the pipeline, maybe a minority candidate is on the pipeline,” she says. “That just continues the idea of ‘wait your turn’ — and ‘wait your turn’ doesn’t solve the problem.”
Despite the less-than-favorable odds, PACs such as Winning for Women are adopting ambitious goals for 2020 — in their case, that’s the election of at least 20 Republican women to Congress this next election cycle. “There’s no shortage of qualified Republican women; it’s a matter of what we can do to get them across the finish line,” says Perez-Cubas.
It’s still early, but so far Perez-Cubas’s group has had some success in attracting talent. They backed pediatrician Joan Perry in the special election primary for North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District. Though Perry lost, the group saw a spike in interest among potential candidates. “Over 100 women reached out in the days following that special election,” Perez-Cubas says. “It was a signal for Republican women that if you choose to run for office, there are groups like ours that are willing to help you.”
And there are signs that more women are at least weighing a shot at office. Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s recruitment chairwoman, told the New York Times this summer that over 180 women have expressed interest in running for Congress in 2020. Last year, there were only 120 female House candidates.
The Center for American Women and Politics has been tracking women who have either filed to run or are likely to be candidates. Its director, Walsh, says the number of candidates bidding for open seats or challenging an incumbent is similar to this time last election season. The bigger increase, she says, has come with women running for seats held by Democrats.
“That makes a lot of sense because in 2018 we saw many seats flip from red to blue. Many of those districts had been Republican strongholds for 20, 30 years,” Walsh adds. “The Republican party is going to work hard to get those seats back… In many cases, Republican women are stepping up or getting recruited to run on those newly blue seats held by Democratic women.”
Another strategy Republican Women for Congress is pursuing is targeting red districts where Republican incumbents are retiring. (At least 15 House Republicans have announced they are not running for re-election.) For Hill-Davis, whether those female candidates are backed by the party machine or not will be a litmus test. “That’s really where you put your money where your mouth is,” she says. “If you won’t back a woman candidate in a very winnable district, you’re really not interested in having more women in the Republican caucus.”