In January 2019, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) announced that the Republican Party was facing a “crisis.”
Thirty-six women had just been elected to their first term in the U.S. House of Representatives and only one of them was a Republican.
Meanwhile, the total number of Republican women in the House had dropped from 23 to just 13.
“Let’s take a moment to think about that,” Stefanik said at the launch event for E-PAC, her political action committee dedicated to electing more Republican women. “That means that Republican women make up less than 3 percent of the House of Representatives. … We can and we must do better.”
Democratic women had triumphed in 2018, far outpacing their Republican counterparts. That would change in 2020, Stefanik promised the crowd: Republicans would get behind female candidates before the primaries, strengthening their campaigns with the same kind of early money that Democratic women receive from organizations like Emily’s List, the high-profile political action committee that backs women who support abortion rights. Over the next two years, E-PAC and other new Republican groups like Winning for Women concentrated on recruiting, mentoring and funding conservative female candidates.
It paid off.
Republican women across the country outperformed their polls in 2020. Thirteen new Republican women have won their races so far, many in battleground districts, with more awaiting final results. 2020 could easily be a record-setting year for Republican women, said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, with more Republican women in the House than ever before.
“If 2018 was the ‘year of the woman,’ ” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Winning for Women, “then 2020 is the year of the Republican woman.”
Many of these gains were made in competitive districts where Democratic women won seats in 2018, ousting some of the women who made headlines for their historic victories, including Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, Rep. Abby Finkenauer in Iowa and Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma. These seats were prime targets, said Dittmar.
“Those women didn’t have the same incumbency advantage that you have after many decades in Congress,” she said. “They were in the most vulnerable position.”
Early in this election cycle, it was clear that Republican women were doing something different. More women ran for House seats than ever before in 2020, with Republican women largely responsible for setting the record: 195 Republican women ran in 2020, up from 120 in 2018. Backed by E-PAC and Winning for Women, conservative women also won their primaries in record numbers.
As the general election neared and polling seemed to favor the Democrats, some speculated that these nominations would not transfer into congressional seats. President Trump could hurt Republican female candidates, one Time article suggested, especially in moderate districts where Democratic nominee Joe Biden was likely to win the top of the ticket. The Republican women who ran for the House in 2020 generally backed the president.
The triumph of Republican women in 2020 is not necessarily a “gender story,” said Dittmar: They performed well because it was a good year for Republicans. What is striking about these victories, she said, is everything that came before the general election.
Recruitment began soon after the 2018 election, said Stephanie Bice, who just won her race in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, in an interview with The Lily in May. Bice got a call from Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), the recruitment chair for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has worked closely with Stefanik and E-PAC. They spoke for almost an hour, said Bice, who was a member of the Oklahoma state senate at the time.
“She spent a lot of time walking me through what this may look like,” said Bice.
Those conversations were crucial to her run, said Bice, who was officially endorsed by E-PAC — and so was the pre-primary financial support. Before Stefanik launched E-PAC, the Republican Party rarely invested money in congressional races before the primaries.
“You don’t see that on the Democratic side as much,” said Bice. “They are willing to support a candidate and get in early. I appreciate that Elise was willing to take a leap of faith.”
Before 2018, electing more Republican women was rarely a major topic of conversation. In the Republican Party, it’s always been a little tricky to talk about it, said Perez-Cubas. Groups like hers had to convey the urgency of bringing more Republican women to Congress, without making it about identity politics.
“You have to make the case for, ‘We’re not electing women for the sake of electing women, we’re electing the best candidate and she happens to be a woman,’ ” said Perez-Cubas.
Unlike the 2018 Democrats, the 2020 class of Republican women will enter a chamber of Congress that they don’t control, said Dittmar, limiting their legislative power. They are also less likely to “come together ‘as women,’ ” she said. The 2018 freshman class of Democratic women often moved as a unit, wearing white to the State of the Union, and forming friendships that they share on social media.
“It’s less common on the Republican side to see that sort of gender alignment,” said Dittmar.
While women have traditionally led the way on bipartisan legislation, it’s unlikely that this group will do much reaching across the aisle, said Dittmar. The differences in ideology have become “so stark,” she says, that there are fewer and fewer “noncontroversial” issues on which women can come together.
Many of the Republicans also targeted Democratic women in their television ads, criticizing the politics of “the squad.” Now those women will become their peers, said Dittmar.
“It’s hard to see a lot of room for them to go in and become allies.”
When an unprecedented number of Democratic women won in 2018, Bice said, it was a “wake-up call.”
“Conservative women said, ‘Wait a minute. Not every woman is a Democrat.’ ”
If so many Democratic women could win, Bice said, then Republican women could, too.