Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Second Wave: How the Pink Tide of 2018 Turned Red in 2020

The “Pink Wave” came crashing into the United States House of Representatives during the 2018 midterm elections, bringing with it a net gain of 14 women in the chamber. However, this influx of women was not split evenly between Democrats and Republicans: Democrats added a net of 24 congresswomen to their ranks while Republicans lost a net of 10. With the number of Republican female congressional nominees in the preceding elections hovering around 50, 2018 saw no significant increase at 52 Republican women winning the nomination in their districts. On the other side of the aisle, the number of female Democratic nominees skyrocketed from a record high of 120 in 2016 to a more astonishing 182 in 2018. For the 116th Congress, female Democratic representatives (88) outnumbered their female Republican colleagues (13) by a margin of almost 7:1.
For some in Republican congressional leadership, these ratios were just happenstance and not a cause for concern, especially for a party that eschews identity politics and picking candidates based on their physical qualities rather than their devotion to certain ideological positions. For other congressional Republicans, these were staggering statistics that were emblematic of the party’s larger Trump-era electoral problem with women, especially those who are college-educated and live in suburban regions. Realizing that they needed more women in their ranks to not only better represent the Republican base but to also recapture an important electorate, Republicans had to understand why so few Republican women were running and even fewer were winning.

The pipeline for political office has many leaks that mainly filter out women: low perception of self-qualification, sexist voter expectations of women, gendered recruitment patterns, etc. How is the current recruitment system keeping Republican women out of office? 

In general, the problem for female candidates is not that they need more support than their male counterparts; rather, they need the same level of encouragement as men. But beginning at birth, boys are more likely to be groomed to seek office in the future than girls. Upon reaching adulthood, women are confronted with local party leaders are more likely to recruit from their inner circles, which tend to be heavily male. Furthermore, when men hold most of the positions of influence in the party, as they currently do in both the Democratic and Republican parties, they seek out candidates who share their experiences, usually men. All of these factors contribute to the gendered recruitment gap: women with similar backgrounds as men are less likely to be encouraged to run for office by a whole host of influential gatekeepers, including family, friends, and party operatives. 

But if women face all of these obstacles, why did Democratic women soar while Republicans simultaneously shed women from their caucus? In recent decades, Democrats have stepped up their female recruitment game with the backing of major organizations like EMILY’s List. These well-funded operations can support dozens of female candidates across the country at a time and across many election cycles. The money they offer to Democratic women allows these candidates to break through competitive fields and win. What is available to Republican women? The Susan B. Anthony List was formed as the pro-life response to EMILY’s List, but each election cycle, it only offers to candidates less than one-fourth of the funding that EMILY’s List can. While the Democratic National Committee and its congressional campaign arms have explicitly focused on recruiting more women, the RNC has preferred a gender-blind approach that actually favors male candidates.

Following the devastating loss of Republican women in 2018, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who at the time of her election in 2014 was 30 and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, pleaded with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to throw its support behind Republican women in their primaries. The chair of the NRCC, Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) rebuffed this idea, claiming that it was a “mistake.” The congresswoman fired back on Twitter: “NEWSFLASH: I wasn’t asking for permission.” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) quickly came out in support of recruiting more women and dedicating party resources to that end; at the same time, Republican women advocacy groups like Winning for Women and Value in Electing Women (VIEW) PAC reported record high donations and expenditures. Stefanik herself recalled how early support from incumbent Republican congressmen and women helped her win a very competitive primary in her upstate New York district back in 2014 and vowed to raise more money for her Elevate PAC to support Republican women.

Most of the 2021 GOP House Freshman Class

So what happened in 2020? The pink wave turned red. Republican women more than doubled their ranks and surpassed their previous record strength. This included six new women of color joining the lone voting Republican Latina in Congress, Representative Jaime Herrera-Beutler of Washington (Delegate Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS) and Resident Commissioner Jennifer González (R-PR) are non-voting members). They also added Julia Letlow (R-LA) in a March special election, while Susan Wright is the frontrunner in the crowded race for a North Texas congressional seat; both of these women’s bids are to replace their late husbands. 

These new freshmen Republican women attributed much of their success at the early stages due to active recruitment by GOP leaders. For example, my own congresswoman, Representative Beth Van Duyne (R-TX), a former mayor of the largest city in the district and a Trump-appointed housing official, was seen as the best candidate for the historically ruby red yet newly competitive district. She struggled with how to balance a congressional campaign without quitting her job, a non-starter for the single mother-of-two. Her fears of running for office were assuaged when McCarthy visited and promised support from the party, and she won in 2020. 

Republicans have discovered what Democrats did long ago: to elect more women, you need to support them. But these gains may not last forever: Republican women tend to represent swing districts, making them vulnerable to Democratic wave elections (hence the majority of their losses in 2018). The next front for Republicans, then, is nominating more women in safe districts.

No comments:

Post a Comment