The Republican Party has chipped away at the Democratic majority in Congress, in large part thanks to female candidates.
“[The year] 2020 ended up being the perfect storm for Republican women,” said Julie Conway, executive director of the Value in Electing Women (VIEW) political action committee, which supports conservative women running for office.
“The reason Republicans not only didn’t lose seats this cycle but that we made gains is 100 percent on the backs of these women,” Conway added.
A woman won in nearly every district that Republicans flipped this election cycle. Of the 11 seats where conservatives ousted Democratic incumbents, nine of the candidates were women. Plus, GOP women are leading in two of the eight races that remain to be called.
At least 36 Republican women will join the next Congress, surpassing the record of 30 Republican women set in 2006. Twenty-eight GOP women so far will be headed to the House—including at least 17 new members. On the other side of the aisle, more than 100 Democratic women will serve in Congress next year.
“A big part of the lesson here, and it’s not a very subtle lesson, is that you can’t get people elected if they aren’t actually candidates running for office,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
More than 220 women filed as candidates under the Republican Party’s banner this election cycle, another record-breaking milestone for the party. Ninety-four of them won their primaries and appeared on the November 3 ballot.
“I think what we saw this cycle was a determination on the part of Republican women to change the narrative for their party,” Walsh said. “They got tired of the stories about where are the Republican women, Republican women are losing ground, there’s no place for them in the party—and they kind of fought back.”
The 2018 midterms were famously dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” but the deluge of trailblazing wins was made by the Democratic caucus. Of the 36 female freshmen elected that year, just one was a Republican. In fact, the number of conservative women serving in Congress today is the lowest it has been since the 1990s.
“It was a wake-up call,” Conway said of the 2018 cycle. “And it demonstrated that women can do this and we can do this in high numbers.”
Still, the victory sweep made by conservative women this cycle was widely unexpected.
There is no mega-donor network like Emily’s List for Republican women, and advocates said the GOP establishment, unlike the Democratic Party, hasn’t done little to actively seek out and resource female candidates.
Instead, it was grass-roots organizing from outside political groups such as VIEW, Maggie’s List and Winning for Women that helped recruit and fund well-qualified candidates across the country. Winning for Women and its associated PACs invested nearly $3 million to support conservative women in this cycle.
“Honestly, we are really pleasantly surprised by how many Republican women won,” said Ariel Hill-Davis, a co-founder and policy director at the grass-roots organization Republican Women for Progress.
Hill-Davis said the success of the 2020 election “was grown from women supporting women, it was not grown by the party structure.”
Some notable wins include Yvette Herrell, a former state legislator and enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, defeating Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico; Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, taking down Representative Joe Cunningham of South Carolina; Michelle Fishbach, upsetting 15-term Democratic Representative Collin Peterson in Minnesota; and Michelle Steel and Young Kim in California, both of whom are among the first Korean-American women elected to Congress.
The wins have whittled the Democrats’ majority in the House from 35 to 17, a huge blow for the party after it was overwhelmingly projected to pick up even more seats in 2020.
Republicans were trailing in cash and in the polls in House races across the country in the weeks leading to Election Day, prompting political strategists to forecast the party losing anywhere from a handful of seats to as many as 20.
There also was the elephant in the room, President Donald Trump, whose deep unpopularity among women—amplified by comments referring to women he disagrees with as “dogs” or “horse face”—was expected to pose a major threat for all down-ballot Republican candidates.
Maggie’s List spokeswoman and former Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll said the overconfidence in Democrats caused political advisers and pundits to wrongly count out female candidates so early in the cycle.
“We were competing in some areas where pundits would say that Republicans don’t even have a chance to win—let alone a female Republican,” Carroll said. “But because of the experience, leadership and caliber of the individuals we endorsed, we knew they could compete at an even footing with those they were up against.”
Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins conceded that the party got “caught in their own bubble” this election cycle and “didn’t hit the marks that we thought we would hit with Republican women.”
Despite the record-breaking wins of the 2020 election, Republicans still have more work to do to reach gender parity in Congress. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Republican women are expected to make up only 14 percent of the party caucus. The Democratic caucus, on the other hand, is roughly 40 percent women.
“I hope the Republican Party as a whole really sees this as a good strategy for the party, in that these women were a very good investment for them,” Walsh, the center’s director, said. “They had a high rate of return in terms of flipping these seats and narrowing the Democrats’ majority in the House.”
Shortly after Election Day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recognized the historic victories by women in the party. At a news conference, McCarthy said “many have already dubbed this year the year of the Republican woman, and it couldn’t be truer from that statement.”
Grass-roots groups said they hope the pivotal role women played in the 2020 election will open the eyes of the Republican Party to invest more in female candidates.
“Typically, the good-old-boy system has overshadowed a number of our well-qualified female candidates in the past,” Carroll said. “If the party on its own can’t see this as a win for Republicans and capture this and move forward, then it’s their loss.”
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