Like the 2018 midterms, the 2020 elections feature a record number of women running for the House of Representatives, with one very notable difference: This year, there’s been a major uptick in the number of Republican as well as Democratic women candidates.
In 2018, 356 Democratic women pursued House seats, while 120 Republicans did, a huge increase over 2016, when 178 Democratic women and 95 Republican women ran. So far this year, both parties have seen this surge continue: 303 Democratic women have filed to run and 202 Republican women have, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
In fact, this cycle has seen the largest number of Republican women filing ever, surpassing the previous record of 133 that was set in 2010.
There are a couple of reasons for this uptick, according to experts. Among them: The infrastructure for recruiting Republican women has improved significantly, and the wave of Democratic women who won in 2018 was a key motivating factor.
“It was very much the year of the women on the left. If they can do it, so can we,” says Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for Winning for Women, an organization dedicated to electing more Republican women.
Beyond the momentum prompted by Democrats’ success, Perez-Cubas emphasizes that Republicans also want to reverse a worrying trend. During the midterms, the number of Republican women in the House actually went down, from 23 to 13. Meanwhile, the number of Democrats increased from 64 to 89. “It all came to a head last cycle,” Perez-Cubas said. “Our numbers were just so bad.”
Relative to recent cycles, this year’s increase in candidate filings — even if it doesn’t result in the same degree of seat gains Democrats saw in 2018 — is significant for the Republican Party, which has historically struggled to bolster representation. In the past, gender parity has been a much greater focus for Democrats, while the GOP has shied away from efforts that have even a hint of identity politics.
“We’ve always had this challenge for 25 years — where are the Republican women?” says Patti Russo, the director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, a nonpartisan organization that provides election training. This year has felt different, however, she notes — and if this trend continues, it could mark an important shift in how representative the party is down the line.
A focus on recruiting more Republican women
A key factor that’s led to the surge of Republican women candidates this year is the investment in recruitment. In the wake of the 2018 election — when the numbers of Republican women in the House dramatically declined — prominent GOP lawmakers, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, made such efforts a top priority.
“We’re facing a crisis level of Republican women in Congress,” Stefanik said during an event in 2019.
To address this crisis, Stefanik’s Elevate PAC, along with other groups like VIEW PAC, Winning for Women, and Maggie’s List, have dedicated growing resources to this specific goal. For Winning for Women, this year’s target is specific: The group would like to elect a total of 20 Republican women, an initiative it calls “20 in 20.”
Much like how Emily’s List has operated on the left, these organizations are involved in recruitment and fundraising — providing endorsements in competitive primary races. In the years to come, they hope to bolster such infrastructure to rival what Democrats have established in the last few decades.
“In the 1980s, Democratic women looked around and said we’re really not being well represented in the party,” says Kodiak Hill-Davis, political director of Republican Women for Progress. “We’ve realized that we have to build the same kind of tools” as Emily’s List.
To do so, these organizations have worked to involve themselves at the primary level; several say this has been key because that’s the point when women candidates have faced some of their biggest challenges, when it comes to both fundraising and garnering a broad base of support.
“It has been harder for Republican women to make it through their primaries, and that goes back to the ideological biases of voters,” says Rutgers University political science professor Kelly Dittmar. Historically, voters tend to view women candidates as more moderate, a perception that can be detrimental in Republican primaries, which are more likely to attract more conservative voters on average.
This cycle, the groups have seen at least one victory: In Illinois’s 15th District, Mary Miller, who had the backing of Maggie’s List and the House Freedom Fund, won her primary earlier this year. She’s set to run for Rep. John Shimkus’s seat in the general election, which is considered safely Republican. And according to Winning for Women, in a slew of other Republican primaries scheduled for later this year — including in New York’s 22nd District, Minnesota’s Seventh, and Texas’s 17th — a woman is viewed as a top contender.
A surge of women interested in running for office
As groups have dialed up recruitment, there’s also been an influx of interest from Republican women in pursuing potential campaigns. Russo told NBC News that the Yale Campaign School saw triple the number of Republican women applying this year compared to the previous one.
Candidates have cited a few reasons for being motivated to run. One is having been inspired by the surge of Democratic women candidates in 2018; another is feeling that their perspectives are not fully represented by current elected officials, something a group of Republican women candidates told NBC News last summer.
“When I looked at our elected officials, I said too many people looked the same,” said Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee, a business leader who’s running for a House seat in Illinois. “And they don’t have a background like mine, or a voice like mine, so I think this is the time.”
President Donald Trump has also played a role: Some candidates have said they are running because they’re interested in building on his legacy, while others hope to push back on it.
“Some of them are aligned with the president, and some of them are not,” says Russo. “There are women from various states who feel very strongly about this administration, that they are headed in the right direction. ... The other group is the complete opposite: ‘I want my party back, and this administration does not represent my principles.’ ‘I’m a pro-choice Republican, and there’s no room for me.’”
Trump’s candidacy has complicated elections for some Republican women in the past. And some who have vocalized their opposition to Trump have faced difficult consequences: Alabama Rep. Martha Roby was forced into a runoff election in 2018, after she declined to support the president’s election in 2016, for example. And this year, she’s not running for reelection. Former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte also experienced backlash after she withdrew her Trump support in 2016.
Conversely, some Republicans who have stood by the president, including Minnesota candidate Michelle Fischbach, have gone on to garner his backing in the process. Depending on the district, this endorsement can be extremely helpful during a primary, as was evident in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, when Trump backed Katie Arrington over Rep. Mark Sanford in 2018.
This cycle overall could feature better prospects for Republican candidates than the 2018 midterms; multiple lawmakers are retiring, leaving some open Republican seats in contention.
“We have more retirements this cycle on the Republican side than we have seen in an exceptionally long time,” Julie Conway, the head of VIEW PAC, said. “Which means there are opportunities for Republican women.”
As Nathan Gonzales has written for Roll Call, though, many Republican women candidates are also competing in tight battleground races that aren’t safely Republican. Additionally, for multiple secure Republican seats, Gonzales notes, men are slated to be the GOP nominee.
The party’s approach to gender diversity is still lagging
Ultimately, the push for advancing more women is existential for the GOP both because it needs more diversity in its policy perspectives, and because some women voters have been distancing themselves from the party in recent years. Republicans, however, are still lagging in their efforts to be more inclusive.
This tension has been evident as members of the party have worked to change its messaging. In 2018, when Stefanik emphasized the need to recruit more women, she got pushback. Initially, National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chair Tom Emmer noted that her move to engage in primaries and promote women candidates was “a mistake,” though he’s since backed this effort.
But NEWSFLASH I wasn’t asking for permission.— Elise Stefanik (@EliseStefanik) December 4, 2018
—>”If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right...But I think that’s a mistake.”
And as NBC News reports, Republican women continue to face institutional obstacles when it comes to elevating their candidacies, in ways that Democratic women do not. For instance, Russo noted that many Republicans she’d work with for regional races would say, “I’m not getting any kind of support from my local party.”
According to Republican Women for Progress, some of the people they’ve worked with haven’t been included in key debates or informed about endorsement decisions — and that in some races, the white male candidate is just assumed as the default party pick.
“If they’ve already chosen their favorite Greg or Mike, how are you supposed to raise enough money to get on everyone’s radar?” said Hill-Davis.
The rise of Republican women in leadership roles — and their decision to speak out on this subject — has contributed to changing attitudes, but the process is ongoing. This has led some to feel the solution is to work independently of the party.
“There are groups like ours who have realized we have to go outside the party structure; I think the party is still sorely lagging at actually putting actions behind their tepid support,” said Republican Women for Progress’s Jennifer Pierotti Lim.
Overall, advocates for expanding the roster of Republican women in Congress argue that the lack of representation in the party makes the GOP appear increasingly out of touch with a diverse electorate.
An inability to solve this issue could lead to a growing number of electoral losses, threatening potential Republican gains in Congress. Promoting women within the party would not only add to the range of experiences that are represented by its leaders — it could also give the GOP a big electoral boost with voters, especially women.
While the spike in candidate filings won’t necessarily translate to a massive increase in more women in Congress this fall, the interest it signals suggests there’s momentum the GOP could build on. Doing so will require increased buy-in from party officials, but many organizations are hopeful that will come in time.
“We were looking at trying to break down systems,” says Hill-Davis. “This is lifetime work.”