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Republican Women in Congress

In American politics, 1992 is often considered the Year of the Woman: 23 women gained seats in Congress in the wake of the Anita Hill controversy. A generation later, the 2018 election offers a much better example of women’s representation in Congress, with 117 women elected to the House or Senate. But across these two groundbreaking election cycles, just 20 of 140 newly elected women were Republicans. Within the contemporary 116th Congress, there are 106 female Democrats, compared to 21 female Republicans. This represents the fewest female Republican representatives in three decades.

There are several reasons for the partisan imbalance among female representatives in Congress, the most obvious being President Donald Trump, whose misogynistic conduct inspired numerous liberal women to run for Congress in 2018. Another key reason is that the Democratic Party has long supported legislation that falls under the traditional definition of “women’s issues,” from the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion access to paid family and medical leave. 

A recent study revealed that nationally, about 56% of female voters lean Democratic, while just 37% lean Republican—with a gap that is even larger among millennial voters. Led by EMILY’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women, the Democratic Party also relies on a number of organizations that recruit and train female candidates. According to Meghan Milloy, the cofounder and co-executive director of Republican Women for Progress, the Republican Party lacks comparable infrastructure and has poor optics around gender, a pattern exemplified by a famous photo of a seven (white) men standing in the oval office as Trump signs a global gag rule that denies federal funding to healthcare centers that provide abortions. 

“When you have the rhetoric that’s going on with the Republican Party, it doesn’t encourage women to run as Republicans or to be in the party at all,” Milloy said in a 2018 interview with Forbes.

Republicans are also less likely to recognize gender disparity within political representation, with just 33% of the Republican respondents in a Pew Research Center study saying that there are too few women in elected office (compared to 79% of Democratic respondents). To understate the issue, the Republican party has not embraced identity politics as a means of broadening its voter base.

And when Republican women do decide to run for office, they often lack support from their party. In 2018, American women donated a total of $184 million to female Congressional candidates but just $25 million to their Republican counterparts. Republican women also struggle in primaries, due largely to the assumption—held by both Democrats and Republicans —that women will be more liberal than their male counterparts. 

Prominent Female Senators 

When examining prominent national politicians, the assumption that women are more moderate than men largely proves true, especially in the cases of Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Both have been the subject of much publicity during the Trump era; both are generally pro-choice, and both voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2017, preserving it from Trump and the Republican majority that sought to repeal it. 

Murkowski, who won her Senate seat in a historic write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary to Tea-Party favorite Joe Miller, has felt little obligation to vote in lock-step with party leaders. In 2011, the Heritage Foundation deemed her the least conservative senator (five percent less conservative than Collins), and according to Five Thirty Eight, she is among the Republican senators least likely to vote in line with Trump. Back in October 2016, she also released a written statement that withheld her support from his candidacy and called on him to drop out of the presidential election after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. 

Murkowski was the only Republican to vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination during the cloture process, though she voted “present” during the final deliberations so that her colleague Steve Daines (R-MT) could attend his daughter’s wedding. Although she has been elected (and re-elected) due to support from more liberal voters, Murkowski is still far more conservative than any of her Democratic colleagues: she has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and frequently butts heads with environmental activists over her support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Collins, too, takes a share of more conservative stances. Despite her later support for the ACA, Collins is not a “closet Democrat”—she voted against the original legislation and for a 2015 repeal. She also voted for all but two of Trump’s cabinet picks and for both of his Supreme Court nominees (although she did vote against three of his most controversial nominees for federal judgeships). Her support of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are noteworthy because they appear to contradict her pro-choice stance. After supporting the FBI investigation against him, Collins ultimately voted to confirm Kavanaugh, saying he was entitled to a presumption of innocence and that he was unlikely to repeal Roe v. Wade.  

Experience of Republican Women

Along with their Democratic and Republican female colleagues, Collins and Murkowski meet for dinner each month, a gathering that has reportedly made their male colleagues jealous. These dinners have cultivated a bond that has also helped to solve important policy issues, including reopening the government after the 2013 shutdown.

Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said that she has felt supported by women on both sides of the aisle throughout her political career. 

“I think that speaks to the broader point of why having women in elected office is so important,” she said in a recent interview with Glamour. “We tend to be more bipartisan. We tend to be legislative workhorses who want to get our work done, not run to our separate corners.

In state legislatures, however, Republican women did seem to get run into a corner during 2018. Republican women lost seats in 2018, even as women’s representation within state legislatures jumped from 25% to 29%. Importantly, Republican women actually make up a larger proportion in Democrat-controlled legislatures than in Republican-controlled ones, denying them policymaking clout.

For Stefanik, recruiting female candidates has become a focus, one she feels the party does not adequately promote. Frustrated that the party did not do more to support the female candidates she had recruited, Stefanik stepped down from her recruitment position within the NRCC in 2018 to run her own political action committee, which focuses explicitly on electing Republican women. 

When Stefanik convened a Republican conference after the 2018 election, she could not help but notice the gender disparity in the room. 

“I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but the room was so stark,” she told Glamour in an interview. “I stood up and said, ‘Take a look around. We are at a crisis level. We only have 13 women. This is unacceptable.’ ”

This lack of women results largely from the party’s failure to rally behind female nominees. Stefanik said that over 100 women filed to run for Congress as Republicans in 2018, and about half of them won their primaries—yet only one Republican woman was newly elected to the House. 

Erin Villardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan group that recruits and trains women to run for office, says she repeatedly hears moderate women expressing the sentiment that there is no place for them in the GOP. 

Retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the 2018 election returns, in which just one Republican woman was newly elected to the House, “unbelievable” and “astounding.”

“It is eye-popping, and I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a problem that we need to fix,” she said

Future of Republican Women

One of the Republican Party’s recent female recruits, pediatrician Joan Perry, was defeated last week in a special election for an open House seat in North Carolina—and her allies think gender had something to do with it. Despite endorsements from all 13 female Republicans in the House of Representatives, she lost the race by a 20-point margin, in a district that the New York Times deemed to be something of a litmus test for the viability of female Republican candidates. Over 1.5 million dollars worth of outside funding poured into the district, and conservative groups backing Perry’s opponent, State Representative Greg Murphy, called Perry “another lying Nancy Pelosi liberal,” despite her promise to join the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus if elected. 

Unlike Collins and Murkowski, Perry ran as an adamant conservative, saying she was motivated to seek office after New York State passed legislation allowing abortions after 24 weeks in cases where the fetus was not viable or the life of the woman was in jeopardy.  

Stefanik said she thought the race reflected a new level of commitment among the Republican representatives who endorsed Perry. Nonetheless, she was disappointed by the perception that a female candidate would be more moderate than her male opponent. 

“To pigeonhole female Republicans into a certain ideological mold is wrong, and it’s sexist,”  Stefanik said in an interview with the New York Times. “This [was] an opportunity for voters to send a strong, conservative woman to the House.”

Still, the opportunity to elect Republican women is not over. 187 women have already filed to run for Congress in 2020, compared to 120 who ran in the 2018 election cycle. Largely, these candidates have been inspired by the gains of Democrat female candidates. But their success remains to be seen.