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The reason Republican women are on the decline in the House

Why the number of Republican women in the House will drop from 23 to just 13.

Candidates For Virginia House Of Representatives Campaign Ahead Of Midterm Elections
Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia was among several Republican women who lost reelection bids in 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

For House Republicans, 2018 was the year of the men.

Come January, the number of women Republicans serving in the House will drop from 23 to just 13, the result of a Democratic wave election, some retirements, and several women who left to seek higher office (to varying degrees of success). The number of House Republican women is in shocking contrast to Democrats, who elected a record-breaking 35 new women to Congress, bringing up their total to 89.

The real reason why Republicans will see fewer women in office this year than last year, comes down to the party’s priorities: helping Republican women win still isn’t one.

In May, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who was charged with Republicans’ candidate recruitment in 2018, said it was her “goal is to increase the number of Republican women in the next Congress,” in the New York Times. Now, after an apparent failure, she’s saying she wants to “to play big in primaries,” Roll Call reported, to help Republican women get through competitive primaries — where a number of recruits faltered.

This would be a major break from how Republicans operate. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s newly elected chair Rep. Tom Emmer has already called getting involved in primary races a “mistake.” One of his reasons: He doesn’t believe in identity politics.

“It shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion — and then we’re going to play in the primary,” Emmer told Roll Call.

Emmer perfectly sums up why Republicans struggle with electing more diverse candidates. As I wrote in August:

Women are much less likely than men to consider running for office on their own. They are more likely to run for office if they have been encouraged to do so, and when they are recruited, they win at the same rate as men do.

This means two things: Getting more women in office requires infrastructure, like candidate training, on-the-ground recruitment, and fundraising; and political parties have to believe in prioritizing women candidates because they think electing women is important.

But for a Republican Party that decries “identity politics” — political positions based on race, gender, or sexual orientation — as a polarizing force distracting Americans from the bread-and-butter issues like taxes and health care, it’s difficult to establish the resources for women.

That’s not to say that Republicans don’t engage in identity politics; arguably, Trump won the presidency by harnessing white identity politics. But the official party line is that identity politics is bad.

“With identity politics being played all around and 21st-century technology accelerating it, and putting gas on the fire — that is my big concern of politics these days. And that makes it harder to have political goodwill in this country because of all this polarization,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told Politico in an interview after announcing his retirement. “If you can deny the oxygen of identity politics, the best way to do that is to have a faster-growing economy, more upward mobility, higher wages, getting people from poverty into the workforce.”

This view trickles down. It makes it hard to convince possible candidates that they should run because their gender brings a worthy and necessary experience to the table. It means sitting Republican women often don’t talk about how being a woman is part of what makes them qualified for office, unless they are put in front of what the party considers to be “women’s issues” — like abortion rights.

And it means Republican political donors — the vast majority of whom are still men — may not prioritize giving to groups dedicated to promoting women candidates. Part of the power of Emily’s List on the left, after all, is that it has the money to make the Democratic Party listen.

Now Stefanik says she is using groups like Emily’s List, a Democratic group that helps fundraise for and support women candidates who support abortion rights, as an example, pushing her own PAC as a way to help women through their races.

As Emmer has shown, she’ll likely face some major headwinds from the party.