In the long and mostly disappointing history of women in American politics, 1992 is widely considered a pivotal year. Fueled in part by outrage over Anita Hill’s treatment by an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings the previous fall, voters elected a record number of women to the House and Senate.
Headline writers would soon dub 1992 “The Year of the Woman.” In the popular imagination, that phrase has come to evoke the beginning of a decisive upward trajectory for women in elective office. But it was always a bit of a misnomer. Of the 24 women elected to the House in 1992, 20 were Democrats—as were all four of the newly elected senators. A more accurate description would have been “The Year of the Democratic Woman.”
That label would also have foreshadowed the path of progress for women in the years since.
The next 30 years of data tell a consistent story of two lines diverging. In 2004, 52 Democratic women were elected to Congress, compared to 30 on the Republican side. But by 2008, the Republican women’s caucus was reduced to 21, while Democrats had climbed up to 69. Today, partly on the strength of another “year of the woman” in 2018, Democrats are up to 105 women. And Republicans? Twenty-two. In fact, while there are currently more Democratic women serving in the House than at any point in history, the number of Republican women in the House is the lowest it’s been since 1992.
In light of the attrition, some Republicans are making a push to get more women elected in 2020. As of this writing, a record 220 (and counting) Republican women have filed to run in congressional primaries. Susan Brooks, a Republican congresswoman who has been vocal about getting more women to run, was put in charge of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) candidate recruitment efforts. Elise Stefanik, another House Republican, launched E-PAC, a political action committee, to support and raise money for GOP women candidates, with a focus on supporting their primary bids. (The “E” stands for “Engage, Empower, Elevate, and Elect.”) And more than half of the NRCC’s 22 “young guns”—House candidates that the party identifies as especially promising—are women.
If Republicans are going to reverse the trend of the past nearly 30 years, it’s going to be thanks to candidates like Tiffany Shedd, who is running to represent Arizona’s First District. Her CV boasts a wide range of talents: natural resource lawyer, farmer, bilingual kindergarten teacher, homeschool mom, and 4-H certified shotgun coach. She grew up in Arizona and stuck around for law school. She realizes that she checks certain boxes for the party. “I don’t really have to guess or figure out, like, so-called ‘messaging,’ because I am the demographic we’re trying to win,” she told me in April. Her campaign ad tells the story of facing off drug smugglers trying to cross her land, interspliced with video of people climbing over border walls, clips of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking angrily, and Shedd shooting a rifle. On her campaign site, she pledges to work with Donald Trump to secure the border.
The Republican establishment has lined up behind her. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has endorsed her, and the NRCC named her a “contender,” one tier below a young gun. She’s got support from more than a dozen members of Congress, the Arizona Farm Bureau, a handful of woman-focused conservative PACs, and more. She ran in 2018 and didn’t make it out of the primary, but this year she has outraised her only remaining primary opponent by more than five to one. Her district is currently represented by a Democrat, but it voted for Trump in 2016. With all that backing, Shedd and candidates like her are a test case. The GOP has been remade in Trump’s image. Is there any room left for Republican women?
There’s a Godwin’s law of conversations about women running for office: As a discussion runs longer, the probability of someone bringing up EMILY’s List approaches 100 percent. Founded in 1985 to back Democratic women who support abortion rights, it’s the bar against which other efforts to support women candidates are measured. The name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”—as in, it makes dough rise. Financial support at the start of a campaign signals a candidate’s legitimacy and helps bring in other donors.
Many of the women it has backed have not only gone on to win office but have stayed in power for decades. Barbara Mikulski, one of the first two women the group supported in the 1986 midterms, went on to become the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress. (She retired in 2016.) In 1992, the organization was profiled on 60 Minutes, drawing national attention, and it grew its network of donors by more than sixfold. Some of the women elected in 1992, like Patty Murray and Dianne Feinstein, are still serving and have ascended to leadership roles in the Democratic Party. In 2000, EMILY’s List started to help women who were running for state and local office as well, in effect building out the front end of the congressional candidate pipeline. For the 2018 midterms, the organization raised more than $100 million for the candidates they had endorsed. (Between Trump’s election in 2016 and the 2018 midterm elections, the group says, an unprecedented 42,000 women reached out to them to talk about running for office, compared to just 900 in the previous cycle.)
In addition to fund-raising, EMILY’s List recruits women to run for office. Staff spread across the country often spend months identifying women with potential. “Take a look at somebody like Kyrsten Sinema,” said Emily Cain, the organization’s coincidentally named executive director. EMILY’s List worked with Sinema when she was a state legislator running for the U.S. House, and then backed her again when she ran for Senate. It was the same with Maggie Hassan, who springboarded from the New Hampshire state senate to the governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate. EMILY’s List backed all six of the current Democratic women governors, who outnumber Republican women governors two to one. Some, like Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, have gained national exposure during the coronavirus pandemic. Whitmer has become the subject of Trump’s harshest attacks on governors, and is widely considered to be on Joe Biden’s list of potential running mates.
EMILY’s List is so effective that it plays an important complementary role to the formal Democratic Party. “The party in any given state is quite happy if they can nominate a woman who is going to get EMILY’s List support,” Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told me. “It takes the pressure of fund-raising off the local party, and they can use those resources elsewhere.”
Other factors have driven Democratic women’s steady gains. First, many of the Democratic women elected in the 1990s—like Nancy Pelosi—are now in powerful positions, setting off a positive feedback loop. Democrats have five women in leadership roles in the Senate and 11 in the House, compared to one and one on the Republican side. More women in the caucus means more advocates for promoting women within the party, and more role models for those considering a run for office.
Policy commitments are also important. The party has consistently focused on issues that disproportionately affect women, like abortion, sexual assault, paid leave, and, more broadly, safety net programs, which women are more likely to access. Democrats have also almost exclusively benefited from the gains in Congress made by women of color, who helped drive the Democratic wave in 2018. Currently, there are 47 women of color serving in Congress, and 46 of them are Democrats.
On the Republican side, there’s a long history of failed attempts to copy the success of EMILY’s List. WISH List, founded in 1992, was a PAC aimed at backing Republican women who were in favor of abortion rights. But by the early 2000s, its fund-raising was in decline, and in 2010 it folded in with another group. Then that group, Republican Majority for Choice, shut down in 2018. The Susan B. Anthony List PAC was created in 1992 to support women, on either side of the aisle, who oppose abortion access. (The name is an apocryphal reference to the legendary suffragist’s supposed pro-life worldview. The editor of Anthony’s papers has called that notion an “invented memory.”) The SBA List still exists, but it has shrugged off its rule of only supporting female candidates. VIEW PAC was founded in 1997 to elect more Republican women to Congress, but according to the organization, it has raised a total of less than $10 million since its founding. She-PAC, a group formed in 2012 to back Republican women running for state and federal office, barely got started before it shut down in 2016.
Other groups have formed in the past decade—Maggie’s List in 2010, Winning for Women in 2017, and Representative Stefanik’s E-PAC in 2019 are a few. They point to the record number of women running this year as evidence that the tide may be turning. The Republican Party typically avoids supporting one candidate over another during the primaries, so when Stefanik pledged to throw her weight behind women in primaries, she got pushback. Tom Emmer, then the incoming NRCC chairman, said it was a “mistake.” Stefanik fired back, tweeting, “NEWSFLASH: I wasn’t asking for permission.” It seems now, though, that party leaders back the effort. “Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise have stepped up in tremendous ways,” Stefanik told me, referring to GOP leaders in the House, “and I think our model is working.” Both McCarthy and Scalise wrote checks to E-PAC soon after its launch.
Still, history suggests tempering optimism. Women voters have shifted sharply away from the GOP under Trump. But even before Trump, Republican pro-women groups were making an identity politics pitch at odds with conservative ideology. Republican donors “reject affirmative action–type activities,” Laurel Elder, a political scientist and sociologist at Hartwick College in New York, told me. The candidates with the most merit, the thinking goes, will rise to the top. “They’re essentially opposed to making specific efforts to recruit women—or to recruit any group based on demographics—so it makes it challenging for these groups that are explicitly designed to try to recruit women to have a comfortable home in the party.”
This aversion to identity politics gets in the way of the groups’ ability to make a full-throated case for their cause. When I asked Olivia Perez-Cubas, spokesperson for Winning for Women, why her organization thought it was important to get more women into Congress, her first answer was that Congress should reflect the country. But that quickly came with a caveat. They’re backing their chosen candidates, she said, “not because they’re women, but because they’d be great members of Congress, and they’re great fits for their districts.” Winning for Women, though, doesn’t support male candidates—even if they’d be great members of Congress and great fits for their district.
Above all, the effort to elect more Republican women has sputtered because there simply isn’t much demand for change among Republicans. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2016 found that just under 40 percent of Republicans agreed that the country would be better off with more women in public office. According to another study from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Republicans think we’ve already done enough on gender equality as a society, and almost 20 percent say we’ve gone too far. That puts groups like E-PAC in a pickle. Republican voters don’t think the problem they’re trying to solve is really a problem at all.
Meanwhile, the trends that drove Democratic gains were mirrored on the Republican side, cutting in the opposite direction. The party, which had once had room for Nelson Rockefeller–style liberals, grew uniformly conservative, its base of power shifted to the South, and it became increasingly dependent on the votes of white evangelicals. The result of this ideological sorting, Elder said, is that that conservatism, “which used to hold back women across the board, is only holding back Republican women.” Her research demonstrates that the more conservative a district is, the less likely it is to elect a woman. “When the Republican Party started moving in a more conservative direction, that tracks almost perfectly with the emergence of the partisan gap and deteriorating performance of Republican women,” she told me. Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University, makes a similar point. If you look at the type of congressional districts over time that tend to elect women, these districts are usually more urban, more racially and ethnically diverse, and higher income, she says. “These days, that kind of district is electing Democrats.”
As a result, not enough Republican women have risen through the ranks to create the kind of virtuous cycle that Democrats benefit from. Typically, leadership positions are filled by members who have been in Congress for years, often decades. There simply aren’t many Republican women who fit that description; many of the women elected decades ago have since lost their seats or resigned. Research shows that elected Republican women have historically been more moderate than their male colleagues, which has driven their attrition as the party has drifted ever rightward. “One of the lessons is that you have to have Republican women in all sorts of seats, not just swing seats,” Stefanik said. When women win office in deep red districts, they’re more likely to stick around in Congress and build seniority. “To some extent,” she continued, “that’s still a challenge we need to work through.”
A week after the 2018 midterm elections, newly elected members of Congress descended on the Capitol for orientation. Ethical guidelines were reviewed; services of the Capitol police explained; catered meals eaten. Newcomers to the House gathered to take a group photo. Included in the snapshot were a record 38 women: 36 Democrats and two Republicans.
Then, that caucus of two faltered. As California’s Young Kim had headed to D.C. for orientation, votes in her Orange County district were still being counted. When the tabulation was complete, it turned out that her (male) Democratic opponent had narrowly won. Out of the more than 120 Republican women who had run for the House, only one new member, Carol Miller of West Virginia, would be taking a seat in the Capitol.
Democrats had beaten their own records. Including incumbents, 89 women had been elected to the House on the Democratic side, a cohort that included the first two Muslim women, the first two Native American women, and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. But in a year of record wins for women in Congress overall, Republican women had actually posted losses. A combination of retirements and unsuccessful campaigns meant that their ranks in the House had shrunk by almost half. In the Senate, the news was better, as the GOP increased from six to eight women—but still lagged behind the Democrats’ 17. (Since then, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia was appointed to fill an open seat, bumping their total up to nine.) “A record number of [Republican] women ran, but that certainly wasn’t reflected in the Election Day results,” said Perez-Cubas, the Winning for Women spokeswoman. “It was disappointing.”
Two thousand eighteen seemed like a low point, and yet 2020 could be worse. Two out of the 13 Republican women currently in the House have announced that they won’t be running for reelection—including Susan Brooks, who chairs the candidate recruitment efforts for the NRCC. Nearly half of the nine Republican women serving in the Senate are at risk of losing their seats in November: Martha McSally in Arizona, Susan Collins in Maine, Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia.
Loeffler, in fact, may turn out to be a good case study in how Republican efforts to promote women lose steam. She was appointed to the Senate by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to fill a vacancy created by a resignation. Kemp’s logic appeared to go like this: Democrat Stacy Abrams had come within striking distance of the governor’s mansion on the strength of a young, diverse, urban coalition. The reliably red state was at risk of shifting to purple. If the Republican Party was going to maintain its power, it needed to expand its support among white suburban women. But most Republican elected leaders in the state were white men. Enter Loeffler, a longtime conservative donor, CEO of a financial services company, and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team—and, of course, a woman. Trump, however, preferred Doug Collins, a loyal defender of his in the House and on many a cable news show. Kemp stuck with Loeffler, who took office in January and is up for election in November.
During her first few months in the Senate, though, Loeffler has already gotten into hot water. In late January, before the public was alerted to the severity of the coronavirus crisis, she began selling stocks that would be adversely affected by it. In fact, she commenced the sell-off the same day the Senate Health Committee, on which she sits, held a members-only hearing about the pandemic. (Loeffler says that a third party makes trades on her and her husband’s behalf, without their knowledge.) Her odds of winning in November look shaky for other reasons, too; Collins has declared that he’ll be challenging her in Georgia’s primary. Since her appointment, The Cook Political Report has downgraded the Georgia Senate race from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican.” If Loeffler loses her seat—either to Collins or a Democrat—Trump will be emboldened to say “I told you so” and other Republicans may be less likely to promote women with the goal of expanding the party’s voting base in the future.
If GOP women are to expand their footprint, it will likely be thanks to people like Tiffany Shedd: candidates with ample backing and funding who are running in swing districts or districts where the incumbent isn’t running for reelection. There are other women who fit that description, like Young Kim, the Orange County Republican, who is running again in 2020. Or Beth Van Duyane, who is competing for an open seat in a Texas district rated “Republican toss up.” Or Ashley Hinson, campaigning for a toss-up district in Iowa currently represented by freshman Democrat Abby Finkenauer. If these Republicans do well in 2020, it could give the effort to elect more women some momentum.
But a spate of congressional wins would almost surely mean that Trump, at the top of the ticket, had won as well. A man who has driven women voters away from the party in striking numbers would continue to define its goals and values. “Frankly, at this point, the Republicans are still able to win elections, even though they’re fielding such a paltry share of female candidates,” Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told me. “Unless there are electoral consequences, it doesn’t really seem likely that there’s going to be a fundamental shift.”
But say 2020 is a bad year for the GOP—an increasingly likely outcome given rising unemployment claims and coronavirus deaths. Republican political elites might draw the opposite conclusion: that their efforts to elect women like Shedd were a waste, and that trying to get more women elected isn’t worth the investment. It’s possible, Rutgers’s Debbie Walsh said, that Democrats could elect equal numbers of men and women to Congress in 2020. “But,” she said, “we are never going to get to parity overall if only one party is working on recruiting and supporting women.”
Kristina Karisch contributed reporting.