November 27, 2020

Is 2020 the Year of the Republican Woman?

11 min read

On January 3, 2019, a record-shattering 102 women were sworn in as members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Democratic side of the aisle—with 35 brand-new female members—sparkled with vibrant skirts and blouses; one member wore a hijab, another a traditional Pueblo dress. On the Republican side, a sea of navy, gray, and black reigned—mostly suits, and mostly men. The disparity, like the fashion, was stark: Just 13 GOP women were sworn in, only one of them newly elected. (By comparison, there are 16 male GOP House members named “Michael” or “Mike” alone.)

The abysmal numbers were impossible to ignore. “It was a significant wake-up call,” says Representative Susan Brooks of Indiana, the recruitment chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the party’s campaign arm in the House. New York representative Elise Stefanik, the youngest GOP woman in Congress, called it a “crisis.” Republican women, in short, realized they needed a serious reset. And for many, the gains women on the left had made were inspirational: If Democratic women could run and win, why couldn’t they?

They were also galvanized to prove that those women—Democratic socialists and staunch pro-choice advocates among them—didn’t represent all women. “I give the Democrat women a lot of credit for stepping up and owning their voices,” says Genevieve Collins, a first-time candidate running for Congress in Texas’s 32nd District. “I want to be counted, too.”

at the swearing in of the 116th united states congress, the gop side of the aisle was mostly suits, and mostly men

At the swearing in of the 116th United States Congress, the GOP side of the aisle was mostly suits, and mostly men.

Win McNamee

Later that year, from her home office in Dallas, Collins was crunching the numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, trying to determine if she had a path to victory in the district, where George W. Bush has lived since the end of his presidency. As the head of corporate strategy for an education technology firm, Collins often advocated for education policy with state and federal legislators. Few of those she interacted with came from a business background. She realized that her experience—both as a millennial woman and a business leader—was sorely needed. “I just thought, I want to see someone who looks like me in Congress,” she says. “And I don’t.”

So she printed out a large-scale map of the 32nd on chart paper and used different-colored highlighters to code the precincts. As she laid the papers out on the floor, her cat, Pancake, ran around beside her. After two days of work, she looked at her tactical arts and crafts project, and a way to win emerged. She thought, I can do this.

 ”I give the Democrat women credit for stepping up and owning their voices–I want to be counted, too.” —Genevieve Collins

But she couldn’t do it alone. Luckily for Collins, over the past few election cycles and particularly since 2018, the Republican Party, led by its female members—and sometimes against the wishes of its male leaders—has made electing women like her a priority. Several organizations now exist to help conservative women with everything from launching their platforms to fundraising and securing endorsements, and the efforts have paid off. Over the summer, the Republican Party announced a record 227 women had filed to run for U.S. House seats, and 94 had made it through to the general election. While that’s still not as many as Democratic women—206 of whom will be on the ballot this November—the total is nearly double the GOP’s numbers from 2018, when just 52 women secured the party’s nomination. Two years after the Democrats’ Year of the Woman, it’s Republican women’s turn to make history.

Stefanik learned the hard way that electing more women isn’t at the top of everyone’s to-do list. In 2018, when she served as the NRCC’s first female head of recruitment, she enlisted more than 100 women to run. When only one candidate, West Virginia’s Carol Miller, won, she had to rethink her strategy. She quit her role as recruitment chair to chart her own course, announcing she wanted to “play big in the primaries”—that is, make endorsements and spend money to help candidates win. Shortly after, the chairman of the NRCC, Minnesota representative Tom Emmer, called her plan to get involved in primaries a “mistake.” She hit back, tweeting with siren emojis: “NEWSFLASH: I wasn’t asking for permission.” (Stefanik says party leaders have since embraced her efforts.)

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In January 2019, the same month she watched as a historic number of Democratic women were sworn in, Stefanik relaunched her political action committee, Elevate PAC (E-PAC for short), with a focus on supporting female GOP candidates in primaries, which the national party officially stays out of. “Oftentimes getting through the primary is the toughest challenge for Republican women candidates,” she has said. “I made the decision to identify top female candidates early.” Of the 11 candidates in E-PAC’s first round of endorsements—including Collins—all but one earned the nomination and will be on the ballot this fall.

Because women need to work harder than men to prove they are strong candidates, early money and support are critical. “Playing in primaries is essential if you’re going to elect Republican women,” says Julie Conway, executive director of Value in Electing Women PAC, or VIEW PAC, which has supported female GOP candidates for two decades. That proved true for Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma state senator running for Congress, who will face one of the most competitive races in the country as she challenges freshman Rep. Kendra Horn, who was elected in 2018 and is the first Democrat to represent the district in 44 years. To give Bice an edge, Winning for Women, a group focused on electing right-of-center female candidates, launched a six-figure TV and digital ad campaign on her behalf in August that heralded her as “a fighter who shares our values” over a twangy country music track. E-PAC and VIEW PAC also donated to her campaign. The support from such groups “provided exposure we may not have had otherwise,” Bice says.

But cutting a check isn’t the only way to help women running for office. Both Stefanik and Brooks say they have spent hours on the phone recruiting women to run, and offering advice and mentorship once they’ve taken the plunge. They get into the nitty-gritty of running a campaign, from budgeting to building email lists to talking to reporters. When Brooks heard that Bice was interested in running, the congresswoman gave her a call. “We talked for almost an hour about the realities of family life and being a member of Congress, and how you can navigate those waters,” says Bice, a mother of two. “She was able to really give me good perspective on how she balanced family and work life—and also a lot of encouragement.”

That encouragement goes a long way. According to research from political scientist Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University, women are less likely to consider themselves qualified for elected office—and often have to be asked multiple times before they’ll seriously consider it. (Men, on the other hand, are much more likely to throw their hat in the ring without anyone asking.) That’s why Brooks, as the House Republicans’ recruitment chair, called on members of Congress to be more proactive about identifying female candidates. “We asked them to encourage women who they thought could be really good candidates to actually run,” she says. “That has made a difference.” (National Republicans aren’t celebrating every female recruit, however: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican nominee in Georgia’s 14th District, fervently supports the groundless QAnon conspiracy theory and has said Muslims don’t belong in government. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he found her bigoted comments “appalling,” though President Donald Trump tweeted after her primary win that she is a “future Republican star.”)

Women are less likely to consider themselves qualified for elected office—and often have to be asked multiple times before they’ll seriously consider it.

During the first months of the pandemic, when campaigning as usual was impossible, VIEW PAC held regular meetings for candidates to share ideas. On one of those calls, Rosemary Becchi, a tax attorney running for Congress in New Jersey, says someone had the idea of checking in with supporters to see how they were holding up. “We were in a moment when it was a little hard to fundraise,” says Becchi, 53. Rather than asking for money during an economically uncertain time, she went down the list of everyone who’d donated to the campaign previously and made what she calls “wellness checks.” It was a hit, helping her sign up volunteers and bring in funds.

Though Becchi is now running in New Jersey’s 11th District, she launched a campaign last year to run in the state’s 7th, where she lives. But the NRCC already had a candidate—a man—in mind for the seat, so they asked her to get out of the race. When she refused, the Republican National Committeeman sent emails to prospective donors urging them not to contribute to her campaign. “It’s a boys’ club,” Becchi said at the time. (She’s more diplomatic about the fracas now: “I would say there was a lot of division about the best approach and the best candidate,” she tells me.)

Republican Women for Progress, another group focused on supporting GOP women, publicly rebuked the Republican National Committeeman for trying to stop Becchi. Though she eventually opted to move her candidacy to the 11th District (members of Congress are not required to live in the district they represent, and Becchi says it’s where her kids go to school), she is grateful for the support. “When no one in Washington was willing to give me money or be helpful,” Becchi says, “they saw the value of having women elected.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Getting more women into office “hasn’t been a focus of the party,” says Meghan Milloy, the executive director of Republican Women for Progress. That is in sharp contrast with the left, which has made recruiting and electing women a priority for decades. The right has lacked a group like EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice, progressive women by recruiting candidates at all levels, training them on the nuts and bolts of campaigning, and mentoring them throughout the election. Most importantly, the group is a fundraising powerhouse, dwarfing its Republican counterparts in dollars spent on behalf of candidates: In the 2018 election, EMILY’s List spent a jaw-dropping $46 million, while VIEW PAC spent just $1.9 million, for example.

That’s partly because of a long-standing belief in the GOP that the best candidate will rise to the top, regardless of whether that person is a woman or an immigrant or someone with a disability. And Republican voters aren’t worried about the party’s minuscule number of women in office. In a December 2018 survey of GOP voters, a majority—71 percent—said they were not concerned that there were just 13 Republican women in the House. That puts organizations focused on electing more Republican women at odds with conservative beliefs. “It’s a conundrum for them,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “If you can go out and make the case in a very explicit way that it matters to have more women in office, it’s easier to raise the dollars.”

There’s an old saying that men run for Congress to be someone, and women run for Congress to do something.

Patricia Russo, the executive director of the Campaign School for women at Yale University, says the program has always had more interest from Democrats than Republicans. When she would promote her training to local GOP leaders or the Republican National Committee, she says it wasn’t clear to party officials why women-specific coaching was necessary. “This is what I would get: ‘Well, make the case for me.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, how many women do you have running? Don’t you think that’s a problem?’” But since last year, she says, many more Republican women have reached out for training, and the school has hosted two sessions just for them. The party has also started to elevate more women nationally: Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and South Dakota governor Kristi Noem spoke at the Republican National Convention this year, and they’re already generating buzz that they will run for president in 2024.

The candidates themselves have also gotten more comfortable bringing their gender to the fore. During her primary, Bice faced attacks from the Club for Growth, a conservative policy group that aired TV ads attempting to tie her to convicted rapist and former media mogul Harvey Weinstein because she voted to expand a tax incentive for the film industry in Oklahoma. Another ad lambasted her for supporting Carly Fiorina in the 2016 Republican primary race against Donald Trump. “There are too few Republican women in Washington right now,” she said in response. “Sexism in attacks from groups like this is one of the biggest reasons why.”

elise stefanik speaks with reporters before president donald trump's impeachment trial resumes at the us capitol in january 2020 in washington, dc

Stefanik speaks with reporters before President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial resumes at the U.S. Capitol in January 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Mark WilsonGetty Images

Some are also leaning into studies that have shown women are better leaders because they are more likely to compromise. “Women are very effective communicators,” Stefanik has told me. “If you look at policy records in Congress, women, historically, are more bipartisan.” One small, but telling, example: On the congressional baseball team, male legislators play Democrats versus Republicans, while on the softball team, the women in Congress join together to play the press corps. “Women are able to build coalitions, really work together, understand what our experiences are, and listen,” Collins says.

The Center for American Women and Politics has found that on both sides of the aisle, women are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women, families, and children. Brooks points to her work with Democrats addressing the country’s high rate of maternal mortality, increasing funding for the early detection of breast cancer, and helping ensure the passage of a bill, in the wake of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, to protect young athletes from victimization—problems, she says, that wouldn’t get attention without women to tackle them. “There’s an old saying that men run for Congress to be someone, and women run for Congress to do something,” says Conway of VIEW PAC. “I believe that.”

And ultimately, the women running for office know there’s power in seeing yourself in elected leaders. When Stefanik was first running, in 2014, parents brought their young daughters to her campaign events. “They would say to me, ‘We’ve never been to a political event,’” Stefanik has said. “‘But we think it’s awesome and a great role model for our daughter to see.’” The more women around the country see leaders like them, the more they could be inspired to run themselves. Even if the gains this year are incremental, Republican women are building the foundation on which more little girls—on both sides of the aisle—can say, I can do that, too.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue.

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