Maia Espinoza spent much of her 20s building a resume primed for a career in politics. She learned the ropes working behind the scenes at the Washington state legislature, joined local boards and founded a nonprofit to promote civic engagement for the state’s Latino community. But even with her background, she didn’t envision running for office anytime soon — certainly not before turning 30.
After the 2016 election, that changed. The millennial mom of two was tired of the divisiveness and gridlock that dominated the news. Colleagues started to ask her when she was going to throw her hat in the ring. Something clicked, and in February, she announced her campaign for a Washington state House seat.
Espinoza’s story might sound familiar to anyone following the wave of women flooding the ballot in the wake President Trump’s election.
There’s one key difference: She’s a Republican.
“I was raised in a conservative household [and] I found Republican candidates tended to align better with my values,“ Espinoza, who describes herself as an independent thinker, says. “I’m not happy with what’s going on, so I’m doing something about it within my own party.”
Espinoza may by in the minority, but she’s not alone. Hotly contested bids by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn and Arizona’s Martha McSally could give both states their first female member of the U.S. Senate. In South Dakota, Rep. Kristi Noem is on track to become the first female governor in state history. And although the total number of GOP women in the House may shrink come January, the party is making gains. One groundbreaking study released in October found that the number of Republican women candidates for Congress has increased 22 percent since 2014.
While the figure “pales in comparison” to 46 percent spike for Democratic candidates, it’s not nothing,” according to Brenda Choresi Carter, one of the authors of the study.
Espinoza wants to see those numbers rise even more. So does Amber Little-Turner, a 33-year-old Republican running for state House in Pennsylvania. Both women say they hope their candidacies can help pave the way for more women to run as Republicans.
“It’s important that we we mix up the legislature, we continue to mix up Washington with people that actually represent the population that we’re serving,” Little-Turner, a state legislative aide and a mother of four who went through the foster system as a young girl, says. “If you look at my story, my professional and personal background, there’s not a lot of representation of elected officials who can relate to the everyday challenges that most people relate to.”
Like Espinoza, Little-Turner says encouragement from others was a big factor in her decision to run. After her boss, state Rep. Harry Lewis, Jr., announced his retirement, colleagues and party leaders approached her and asked her to consider campaigning. “To be frank and honest, I don’t think I would have taken the leap to run if I didn’t get the support and people suggesting it,” she says.
Creating more avenues for that support is key to leveling the gender parity playing field on the GOP side, experts say. But that could be an uphill battle, especially given the reluctance to putting an emphasis on gender or other aspects of so-called identity politics within the GOP base and some leadership.
“The Republican Party tries as hard as it can to avoid identity politics, almost to its detriment now, because we don’t look like the population we are supposed to represent,” Espinoza says. “We have to actively recruit people, we have to invite them to the party, invite them to events, we have to make a conscious effort. The Democrats do this.”
Another advantage the Democrats have is institutional backing for female candidates. Republicans lack an equivalent to Emily’s List, the powerhouse PAC backing Democratic women who support abortion access that attracted interest from tens of thousands of could-be female candidates in the wake of the 2016 election. Women leaders in the GOP are trying to figure out how to replicate that success on the right.
“They run a well-oiled machine,” Libby Wuller, a 23-year-old Republican serving on the board of RightNow Womens PAC, says of Democrats. “I don’t think any one group on the Republican side has figured that out, but I’m also not convinced it needs to be one organization.”
Instead, she sees the solution as a constellation of groups doing everything from recruiting to spending in favor of female candidates on the right to ensure GOP women know they’re not going at it alone. “It’s not just about cutting the checks, it’s about connecting that woman to other Republican women’s groups,” she says. “Its being a sherpa in town.”
On top of those structural barriers, running for office as a Republican woman in today’s political environment comes with unique challenges, especially against the backdrop of the Trump administration and the #MeToo movement.
Several female candidates interviewed for this piece described facing questions and sometimes vitriol from female voters who question how they can align themselves with the GOP, even when they’ve personally been critical of the Trump administration.
“Our president has woken a sleeping giant when it comes to women … [and] it’s hard to be an outspoken Republican woman in the age of this sleeping giant,” says Morgan Murtaugh, a 26-year-old Republican running for a U.S. House seat in Southern California. “Women tell me, ‘How dare you run as a Republican,’ and as a feminist I say, ‘How dare you tell me because of my gender I have to vote a specific way.’”
Murtaugh, who would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, has wanted to run for office as long as she could remember. This year, finally old enough to meet the constitutional age requirement to take the plunge, she saw an opportunity to jump in and challenge Democratic Rep. Susan Davis for the San Diego seat.
“I saw who was running on the Republican side and I knew they had no chance in this political climate,” Murtaugh recalls. “We were going to run the same candidate — an old white male — and that’s not going to work right now, it’s not going to work in this climate.”
Murtaugh faces a steep uphill battle — voters in the deep-blue district routinely elect Democrats by 20- to 30-point margins — but to her, seeking office is the first step in forging a more diverse, inclusive party that can attract the next generation of voters. And even with the challenges, she has zero regrets about her decision to run.
“It’s more than a full-time-job, but it’s also super enlightening and rewarding,” she says. “I love every minute of it.”
Editor’s Note: This article originally misstated that Maia Espinoza is running for a Washington state Senate seat. Espinoza is running for a Washington state House seat. We regret the error.