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Why Republican women in Congress might become rarer after the 2018 midterms

Republicans say they want to elect more women. Their messaging works against that.

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New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik said her goal running 2018 recruitment for the GOP was to elect more women.
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A record-breaking number of women are running for office in hopes of changing a strikingly male-dominated political landscape in 2018. But the so-called “year of the woman” comes with an important caveat.

“I see the stories about the year of the woman and I always feel there should be an asterisk,” Melissa Deckman, a political scientist who closely follows women in politics, said. “It’s the year of the Democratic woman.”

For Republican women, 2018 isn’t shaping up to be historic at all.

In recent months, several reports in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight have detailed a difficult road map ahead for Republican women running for House seats — particularly for incumbents.

There are lots of reasons to believe that there will be more women in Congress overall after the 2018 midterms; Rutgers University’s Center of American Women and Politics has tallied 155 women who have already won their primaries, and 307 women are still in the running. But those numbers are heavily skewed toward Democrats. Just 35 Republican women have won their primaries, and there are only 79 Republican women still in the running. One female Republican incumbent, Alabama’s Rep. Martha Roby, was forced into a runoff election, which she won in mid-July.

Republican women are already a clear minority in Congress. Of the 84 women in the House of Representatives (out of 435), just 23 are Republicans. Nearly a fourth of sitting Republican women are retiring or leaving the House to seek higher office. That includes retiring Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who currently represents a Democratic-leaning district, as well as Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who is in a heated Republican primary for Arizona Senate. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg detailed in the New York Times, the 2018 midterm elections may actually widen the gap between Democratic women and Republican women in the House.

Why? It’s a reality political scientists attribute directly to Republicans’ approach to “identity politics.”

House Republican women have a difficult electoral map ahead

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Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) is one of several Republican women facing a competitive midterm election in 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Though it’s still months from Election Day, the road map for Republican women in the House already looks fraught. There are a handful of vulnerable blue-state Republican women that Democrats are targeting this year.

California Rep. Mimi Walters will face off against UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter, a progressive who has endorsed Medicare-for-all and has the support of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Kamala Harris (CA). In Virginia, Democrat Jennifer Wexton wants to pick off Rep. Barbara Comstock, who is one of a handful of Republicans representing a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016. And in New York, Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, who has been known for embracing President Donald Trump, is in a toss-up district.

Other Republican women are far from a guaranteed loss — but they all represent districts that could be swept up in a blue wave. A June poll found Utah Rep. Mia Love in a tight race with her Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the only Republican woman in House leadership, is also facing a tough reelection bid this year as her Democratic opponent, state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, has been working to tie Rodgers to Trump.

There is also a handful of Republican women who are retiring — like Reps. Lynn Jenkins (KS) and Ros-Lehtinen (FL) — and others who are seeking higher office.

“I don’t want to say there are no bright spots for women in the GOP. Look at Kristi Noem. Diane Black. Marsha Blackburn,” Deckman said, citing Republican women campaigning for statewide office. “It’s always relative.”

Noem has already won her primary, and is expected to be South Dakota’s first woman governor. Blackburn is also expected to win her Senate primary in Tennessee this Thursday. Meanwhile, Black, who was a high-ranking committee chair in Congress last year, is in a contentious four-way Republican primary for governor.

Since Trump’s election, two Republican women have also won special elections; Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) filled former Rep. Trent Franks’s spot and is now the only woman in the conservative House Freedom Caucus. And Karen Handel filled former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s seat. Katie Arrington also beat Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s primary earlier this year.

Still, it’s highly possible that in 2019, the House will have fewer Republican women than in 2018.

There’s more infrastructure around electing Republican women this year. It doesn’t compare to Democrats.

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The Democratic group Emily’s List — which works to get Democratic women who support abortion rights elected to office — is an electoral force. Republicans have had a hard time trying to create a conservative equivalent.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Emily’s List

It’s not as though Republicans aren’t aware of the gender disparity in their ranks, especially compared to their Democratic colleagues. Only two House committees — the Education and Workforce Committee and the Ethics Committee — are chaired by Republican women. Rodgers, who is the chair of the House Republican Conference, is the only woman in leadership.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, is in charge of candidate recruitment for 2018, a position she told her local newspaper that she pitched herself.

“We are increasing the number of Republican women running for office,” Stefanik told the New York Times. “And my goal is to increase the number of Republican women in the next Congress.”

And there’s a new group aimed at helping conservative women get elected: Winning for Women. The idea was to compete with the Democratic organizations like Emily’s List, a powerhouse PAC that works to elect women who support abortion rights. Winning for Women is aimed at electing right-of-center women who support “free-market principles and a strong national defense.”

The group has endorsed 20 candidates — from Young Kim, the Republican state lawmaker looking to fill retired Rep. Ed Royce’s seat in California, to Wisconsin’s Leah Vukmir, who is trying to unseat Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Among Winning for Women’s leadership are former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, and American Legislative Exchange Council CEO Lisa Nelson.

But the new infrastructure just doesn’t compare to what’s happening on the other side of the aisle. Winning for Women has fundraised just shy of $300,000, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings which accounts through the end of June. Maggie’s List, another group dedicated to electing Republican women, raised just over $100,000. By comparison, Emily’s List has upward of $30 million and endorsed 57 candidates for the House alone.

Political scientists following these trends are quick to point out that this conversation bubbles up every so often for Republicans. Famously, during the Republican autopsy of Mitt Romney’s presidential loss in 2012, the conversation on the right focused a lot on energizing women and minorities in the party.

“But then you saw very little after that,” Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist with Rutgers University, said. “We didn’t see that translate into concrete initiatives.”

“They will have a press release about it. They don’t put resources toward this,” Deckman said.

Republicans don’t think identity politics matter. It shows.

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Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock is among the vulnerable Republican women in 2018.
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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.

“Your demographics do inform your qualifications,” Dittmar said. “Your lived experience as a woman or a person of color yields very different qualifications.”