National News

As Democratic Women Surge, Ranks of Republican Women May Shrink

Posted May 17, 2018 4:22 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — As female candidates crash the barricades of the Democratic Party and predict a “blue wave” of women in Congress, a string of high-profile departures of prominent Republican women threatens to leave the House with fewer Republican women next year.

A new and unusually large crop of female Republican candidates — many of whom have embraced President Donald Trump as fervently as Democrat candidates have rejected him — hope to replenish the ranks, or come close. But the political headwinds facing Republicans and the districts that women are running in make that math daunting.

“We have all this energy around female candidates, and yet Republicans could wind up with fewer women in Congress when all is said and done,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican strategist.

Of the 23 Republican women in the House, six — about one-quarter — are retiring or seeking higher office. They include a former Budget Committee chairwoman, Diane Black, running for governor of Tennessee; a firebrand who led the Republican inquiry into Planned Parenthood, Marsha Blackburn, running for Senate in Tennessee; another former member of the Republican leadership, Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, and a former Foreign Affairs chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who are retiring; and another former member of leadership, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, running for governor.

The highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, is firmly in the Democrats’ cross hairs for November. And other Republicans, such as Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Claudia Tenney of New York and Mimi Walters of California, are considered vulnerable in what is shaping up to be a challenging year for their party.

The result, analysts say, could be a widening gap between Republican and Democratic women in the House. Democrats already have about three times as many women in the chamber as Republicans, including Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader. And while the number of women running has surged in both parties, Democrats are fielding about three times as many female candidates as Republicans this year.

Tuesday’s primaries in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Idaho and Nebraska made the point. Twenty-six Democratic women sought House seats; 12 won. But just three Republican women sought House seats, and only Pearl Kim of Pennsylvania won.

There are 408 women still in the running for seats in the House of Representatives: 305 Democrats and 103 Republicans, according to the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. The numbers, which include incumbents, represent a record high for both parties. In 2016, by comparison, 123 Democratic women and 48 Republican women ran for seats in the House.

“We have an enthusiasm uptick with our women as well,” said Missy Shorey, the national executive director of Maggie’s List, a political action committee that works to elect Republican women. “You don’t know about it because we don’t march and shout.”

Like their Democratic counterparts, many in this year’s crop of Republican women are first-time candidates. But while many Democrats are running because of anger at the president and what they see as his awful treatment of women, many of the Republican women are embracing him.

“This is a man who loves women, who has entrusted women in senior leadership positions,” said Lena Epstein, a businesswoman who was co-chairwoman of the Trump campaign in Michigan and is now running for a Republican-leaning open seat in the eastern part of the state. “The Republican Party at this point is starved for more female leadership.” Some were drawn into politics by Trump.

In California, Kimberlin Brown Pelzer, a soap opera actress-turned-avocado farmer, supported Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries — and was rewarded with a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. She said that led to other speaking engagements, which in turn led her to declare her candidacy; she is running on a pro-business platform to unseat Rep. Raul Ruiz, a third-term Democrat.

In South Dakota, Shantel Krebs, the secretary of state, is eager to help Trump advance his agenda. “His issues inspired me, and how he’s approaching them is inspiring me,” said Krebs, who is running for the House seat being vacated by Noem.

Strategists in both parties have long known that women are more reluctant to run for office than men, in part because women are more likely to feel they lack qualifications. But the president’s lack of political experience has emboldened some Republican women, said Julie Conway, the executive director of View PAC, which works to elect female Republicans.

“When the president was successful, you no longer had in your head, ‘Hey, I need to first run for PTA or school board,'” she said.

Republicans say they are upbeat about the prospects of at least half a dozen, if not more, new female faces.

They include Lea Marquez Peterson, the head of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Martha McSally, who is running for Senate in Arizona; Young Kim, a former congressional aide seeking the seat held by her onetime boss, Rep. Ed Royce of California; and Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban-American journalist in Florida who is running for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat.

But in the current environment, nonpartisan analysts rank all three of those seats as leaning Democratic in the fall, and Conway conceded that electing six new Republican women — the number needed to replace female lawmakers who are retiring — while keeping all the female incumbents in place will be not be easy.

“The math on paper is kind of challenging,” she said.

In Florida, for instance, analysts expect Ros-Lehtinen’s seat to fall into Democratic hands. A heavy favorite to win the Democratic primary there is Donna Shalala, a Democrat and former health secretary to President Bill Clinton, who would be a formidable candidate.

And in Tennessee, both Black, the candidate for governor, and Blackburn, the Senate candidate, are likely to be succeeded by men, according to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

Democratic women have long outnumbered their Republican counterparts in Congress, in large part because the makeup of the Democratic Party is more heavily female, and in part because Democrats been more aggressive about recruiting female candidates.

And Democrats have a better infrastructure for supporting and helping to elect women: Emily’s List, the premier political action committee aimed at electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, has raised $500 million in its 33-year history. No Republican political action committee comes close. Cultural factors are at work as well, especially in conservative regions of the country, said Black, who has been trying to recruit women to run.

“I don’t know that there’s any scientific information out there to say for sure,” she said, “but what I’ve found is that women who are more conservative tend to want to be at home with their children, with their families. We heard that many times when we were recruiting.”

So while the number of Democratic women in the House has grown over the years, to 61 today, the number of Republican women has remained relatively static. In 2005, there were 43 Democratic women in the House, and 25 Republican women. Two years later, the number of Democratic women had increased to 52, while the number of Republican women had dropped to 20.

Republicans say they are trying to change this dynamic. In a first, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is responsible for electing Republicans to the House, has put a woman — Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — in charge of recruitment.

Stefanik, 33, who became the youngest member of Congress after being elected in 2014, said she sought the job, in part because no one actively recruited her to run. She said she was determined to increase the number of women in the Republican conference.

“We are increasing the number of Republican women running for office,” she said, “and my goal is to increase the number of Republican women in the next Congress.”