House Republican women have broken a record. In 2021, the largest ever freshman class of GOP women will take seats in the chamber. In fact, the cohort of Republican women in the House may double in size when new members arrive in January.
At least 23 Republican women were elected to the House this week, 13 of whom will be new to Congress, according to data from the Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University. Several won swing districts that had flipped blue in 2018. Eight Republican women have been elected to the next Senate, and if Georgia’s Kelley Loeffler holds on to her seat, they will match their current record of nine sitting women Senators.
“There is no doubt about it. Last night was truly the night of Republican women,” tweeted Elise Stefanik, a representative from New York who helped lead the effort to recruit and support Republican women candidates in this election cycle.
Does that make this the “Year of the Republican Woman” that several outlets predicted? If the yardstick is GOP women’s performance in the 2018 midterms: Yes. After that blue wave election, the female Republican cohort in the House dwindled from 23 to 13—less than three percent of all representatives.
But if House Republican women’s success is measured against that of Democrats, then this week’s wins are modest at best. Democratic women will hold at least 83 seats in the next House as of this writing, and all 17 sitting female Democratic senators have been re-elected. (Compare that to 23 Republican women elected to the House and eight elected to the Senate). Some House races are yet to be called, and it’s unclear whether Democrats will ultimately match their previous record, set in the 2018 election, of 89 women heading for the House.
This week’s election is “a good news story for Republican women,” says Deborah Walsh, director of the Rutgers University center. “But I really can’t stress enough the distance that the party still needs to go achieve gender parity.”
How did Republicans begin to turn it around? The credit, in part, goes to new Republican groups like Stefanik’s E-PAC (the “E” stands for “Engage, Empower, Elevate, and Elect”), as well as Winning for Women, VIEW PAC, and Maggie’s List (a riff on Democrats’ Emily’s List, but named for Republican legislator Margaret Chase Smith). They recruited a record number of Republican women to run for congress in 2020, focusing on candidates with experience as state legislators, said Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies women in Congress. And critically, PACs like Stefanik’s gave to Republican women in primary contests, something the Republican Party rarely does.
In several districts, Republican women competed against Democratic women who had won office in 2018. Ashley Hinson, a TV reporter, turned Republican state legislator, beat Abbey Finkenauer, a freshman Democrat, in the race for Iowa’s first district. In Oklahoma’s traditionally red fifth district, Stephanie Bice, a state senator, edged out Kendra Horn, who had flipped the fifth in 2018. As of this writing, at least six Republican women have flipped House seats. Some of those wins didn’t come as a surprise; many of the seats Democratic women won in 2018 were purple at best. Before Horn won, for example, Oklahoma’s fifth district had been led by a Republican for 40 years. Donald Trump won the district by nearly 14 points in 2016.
Republican women’s wins in swing districts could increase the party’s investment in women’s campaigns in the next cycle. But in the longer term, these victories are less helpful for growing the number of Republican women in Congress. Historically, women have been perceived as more moderate than their male counterparts in the GOP and have tended to serve in moderate districts where turnover is higher. To build their ranks sustainably, Republican women need to win safe seats and stay in them for years, building seniority and a path for others to follow. The women winning swing districts in 2020 could be swept away in 2022 or 2024.
The incoming Republican women will reshape the House in other ways. Amongst the wave of Democratic women elected in 2018 were several mothers of young children, like Katie Porter, a single mother of three, Mikie Sherrill, who has four kids, and several others. Unpredictable work hours on the Hill and the distance members travel from home to get there can make it difficult for primary caregivers—disproportionately mothers—to serve. Now, more Republican women will be joining that cohort, including Hinson, who has two sons; Nancy Mace, a single mom of two, newly elected to represent South Carolina’s first district; Victoria Spartz, who has two daughters and who just won the election for Indiana’s fifth district; and potentially Beth Van Duyne, a single mother who is leading in the vote count for Texas’s twenty-fourth district.
A couple of Republican women headed to Congress share a more unusual distinction: support, or at least sympathy, for QAnon. The conspiracy theory is sprawling but centers on the (baseless) belief that the president is secretly combatting a shadowy group of Democratic politicians and celebrities who abuse children and worship Satan. Lauren Boebert, a restauranter and hard-right gun activist who won Colorado’s third district, has expressed enthusiasm for the fringe movement but walked back her support under pressure. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won Georgia’s fourteenth district, has supported the theory since 2017, writing pro-QAnon articles as a “correspondent” for a conspiracy website, and posting videos in which she praises Q (the anonymous leader of the movement). “I’m very excited about that now there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out,” she said in one now-private YouTube video, according to the Washington Post.
Despite its wins, the Republican women’s congressional caucus is still a shadow of the Democrats’—a partisan gap that has widened over the past couple of decades. About two-thirds of female Senators are Democrats, and that’s unlikely to change significantly. Democratic women outnumber Republican women in the House more than six to one in the current Congress, and while that partisan gap will narrow somewhat with the newly elected members, it won’t be close. As of Thursday evening, 83 Democratic women, including incumbents and newcomers, had won House seats.
Republican women’s gains, though, could provide momentum for GOP women candidates in future elections. Outside groups should have an easier time getting the ear of party leadership, says Swers. It may also help convince more first-time female candidates to run.
“One cycle doesn’t make a trend,” says Walsh, who runs the Rutgers Center. “Will this continue? Will the party put resources in? That’s what we’re going to need to watch for in 2022.” She added, with a laugh, “I can’t believe I’ve uttered ‘the election year 2022.’”