It wasn’t hard for Claire Russo to imagine herself running for Congress. She lives about an hour away from Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who ran in 2018.
Spanberger has three young kids, like Russo. She has a background in national security, like Russo.
And when Spanberger ran, she won.
The final number will likely be even higher: In 14 states, potential candidates still have time to sign up.
In 2018, female candidates set a record that was hard to beat: 476 women ran for the House, up from 273 in 2016. When women won a historic number of seats — filling the Capitol with female voices that have since seized the country’s attention — 2018 was pronounced the second “year of the woman,” a nod to 1992, when women made unprecedented gains across both chambers of Congress. The class elected in 2018 was the most ethnically, racially and religiously diverse in congressional history, and included the body’s first Muslim women and Native American women.
“Everyone running in 2020 is able to find a role model in someone,” said Mairead Lynn, deputy director of communications at Emily’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic women who back abortion rights.
Republican women find fewer role models in 2018’s class: Of all the women elected to the House, only one — Rep. Carol Miller (D-W.V.) — was a Republican.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped them from running. Republican women are largely responsible for beating the 2018 record of female candidates for the House, says Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. While Democratic women are signing up to run at a similar rate to 2018, the number of female candidates on the Republican side has skyrocketed, from 120 in 2018 to 195 so far in 2020.
While Democratic female candidates still outnumber their Republican counterparts, says Dittmar, Republicans have started to “close the gap.”
It’s not clear exactly why there has been such a spike in female Republican candidates, said Dittmar. After the 2018 election, when so few Republican women won seats, some party insiders began to mobilize. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) launched E-PAC, a political action committee focused on electing more Republican women, stressing the importance of backing them before the primaries.
“One of the things I really appreciate about Elise is that she is willing to engage in primary races,” said Stephanie Bice, a Republican candidate for Oklahoma’s 5th District. While Democrats have a long-standing tradition of backing female candidates early, Bice said, Republicans have been hesitant to do the same. Emily’s List — whose name stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” — has a long-standing reputation for throwing early support behind promising Democratic candidates.
For Bice, early support from E-PAC and Republican veterans like recruitment chair Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) has been crucial.
When so many Democratic women won in 2018, alongside so few Republican women, Bice said, it was a “wake up call.”
“Conservative women said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, not every woman is a Democrat.’”
Insiders within the Oklahoma Republican Party approached Bice on the night of the 2018 election, right after a Democrat — Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) — won the 5th District seat from a Republican incumbent. At first Bice didn’t think they were serious, she said. But then she continued to hear from people urging her to run.
“Conservative women, we’ve always been involved in our church communities. We inherently have these leadership abilities,” Bice said. “We don’t think of ourselves in the context of running for office.”
Bice will compete in Oklahoma’s Republican primary in June.
For Democratic women, the success of so many 2018 candidates have made further gains possible, said Lynn, from Emily’s List. While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other members of the “Squad” have attracted the majority of the media attention, newly elected congresswomen across the board have been instrumental in fueling the newcomer campaigns of 2020.
Lynn says she regularly hears 2020 candidates talking about the women elected in 2018. “It’s not just one woman who is inspiring everything,” she said.
There isn’t much data yet on the women who have filed to run in 2020. But anecdotally, the field of women appears to be “more diverse than ever,” says Dittmar, full of candidates of different racial and economic backgrounds, ages, and levels of political experience. Many are responding to a clear “appetite for disruption” in American politics, she says, presenting themselves as fearsome opponents of the status quo.
Candace Valenzuela is a Democrat running for Texas’s 24th Congressional District seat. Before the 2018 election, her husband always made jokes about her running for Congress but she’d never seriously considered the idea. Then she went out to lunch with a few friends who had worked on the Senate campaign of former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.). They talked about how “our district nearly flipped,” Valenzuela said. The same Republican has represented her district since 2005.
“One of them said, ‘You know, a woman of color could really bring this home.’”
Valenzuela nodded, continuing to eat her lunch. When she looked up, she said, both her friends were staring at her.
“I’m a black woman in Texas,” she remembers telling them. “I’m about to have a baby. I can’t be thinking about setting up a congressional run right now.”
Then she thought about 2018 candidates like Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who won in 2018 as a single mom with three young children. Porter “ran unabashedly,” Valenzuela said, “advocating for truth and honesty with limited BS.”
Soon Valenzuela was talking to the political director at Emily’s List. She explained that she’d breast-fed her first son until he was 2-years-old. When her new baby was born, she told the director, she wanted to do the same thing. She was assured she could breast-feed during fundraising calls.
In July, Valenzuela will compete in a runoff against another Democratic candidate.
Russo will also compete in the Virginia primary this summer. It will be about a year from the day she picked up a call from Spanberger’s chief-of-staff, who said her boss wanted to talk.
While Spanberger hasn’t formally endorsed Russo, she’s been a mentor, Russo says.
“She can’t be that to other candidates,” she says. “It’s different, woman to woman.”