Record number of GOP women winning House primaries, but most face tough fall races
Posted July 6, 2020 7:01 a.m. EDT
CNN — More Republican women than ever before are winning primaries for US House, which has traditionally been the biggest obstacle to getting women elected to a GOP conference that's still overwhelmingly male and white.
A record 55 Republican women have won their House primaries this year, breaking the previous high of 53 set in 2004, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers.
That's, in part, because of the surge in GOP women running. More than 220 Republican women have filed to run for the House in states where the filing deadline has passed. That's an 86% increase from 2018, when only 120 filed to run.
It's a near certainty that Republicans will do better than in 2018, when they sent just one new woman to the House. But this year's record numbers don't necessarily mean there's going to be a wave of new Republican women in Congress next year.
In the Senate, for instance, four of the nine GOP women senators are vulnerable. And in the House, many of the non-incumbent women who have won primaries so far are in competitive general election races, and their fortunes will depend greatly on the national environment. In 2018, it broke for Democrats. In early summer 2020, few political prognosticators see Republicans flipping the House in November.
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"We could have 1,000 women running, but it doesn't matter if they cannot win," said Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW (Value in Electing Women) PAC, which works to elect GOP women.
Women are also winning primaries in some deep red seats — the surest way to increase and maintain their numbers. But with just 13 Republican women in the House, two of whom are not running for reelection, Republican women need to break even before they can make gains that will put them anywhere near their record of 25 women in the House in 2005, let alone reach parity with Democrats, who currently have 88 women.
"There are definitely some of these Republican women in really strong Republican seats, you know, races they can win," said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics. "But then there are the majority who are running in tough races in the fall."
Why are more GOP women running?
The spike in Republican women running has a lot to do with what happened in 2018. While Democrats elected 35 new women to the House, West Virginia's Carol Miller was the only new woman on the GOP side.
Soon after the midterms, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who had recruited more than 100 women as recruitment chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2018 cycle, confronted her party's leadership and publicly sounded the alarm. Stefanik relaunched her leadership PAC for the sole purpose of playing in primaries to help women.
The House GOP campaign arm does not officially play in primaries, although its leadership now openly acknowledges it has to do better electing diverse candidates. More than half of the candidates on the committee's top level of its "Young Gun" list are women.
"With the Democrats' huge success last Congress, I do believe that was a wake up call for our side of the aisle," said Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, the NRCC's recruitment chair this cycle, who is herself not running for reelection, but has put a priority on recruiting and mentoring women.
"I sense a different level of enthusiasm with my male colleagues," Brooks added, noting that some of them have been more interested in financially supporting women.
So far, women as a percent of House GOP candidates and as a percent of nominees is holding steady, at about 21% each this year, according to CWAMP's data (Women are 46% of Democratic nominees so far this year).
Republicans are decades behind in trying to replicate the power of EMILY's List, which stands for "Early Money is Like Yeast," and often backs women early in Democratic primaries.
"This is a problem Republicans have struggled with for decades, and it's certainly not going to solve itself overnight in one or two election cycles," said Olivia Perez-Cubas, the spokeswoman for Winning for Women, a relatively new group whose super PAC went all in for a female candidate in a North Carolina special election last year only to see her lose badly in the primary runoff to a Freedom Caucus-backed man.
"We're making big strides, and we feel confident (they) will win in November," Perez-Cubas said, noting the number of women who won primaries so far.
But many of the women who have won GOP primaries have a difficult road ahead, especially when they've had to profess support for President Donald Trump to win the nomination but may face suburban voters not so hot on the President in a general election.
Only one of the 12 women on the highest level of the NRCC's Young Guns list -- Texas' Beth Van Duyne -- is in a seat trending toward Republicans, according to ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, who's a CNN contributor. Three of the 12 women are running in Solid Democratic districts.
Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC, worries that touting women running in unwinnable races will only contribute to the narrative that GOP women are falling short if they don't win this fall. "That's setting us up to fail," she said.
Even those in Trump districts still face competitive races. Two Iowa women who won their primaries last month -- state Rep. Ashley Hinson and state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks -- are in Tilt Democratic districts. Likely rematches, like those with former Reps. Claudia Tenney in New York's 22nd District and Karen Handel in Georgia's 6th District and 2018 nominee Yvette Herrell in New Mexico's 2nd District are rated Tilt Democratic.
Besides safe red seats, the GOP's best shot to elect more women may be in toss-up races where women have already won the nomination, like in South Carolina's 1st District, where state Rep. Nancy Mace recently avoided a runoff, or Oklahoma's 5th District, where either state Sen. Stephanie Bice or businesswoman Terry Neese will take on Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn.
"We have a great chance to win some of these challenger races with really good women and so that's positive but are we going to elect 50?... Are we going to get the Republican majority back by electing 30 women?" asked Conway. "Ah no. Just look at the math; it just doesn't work."
Safe GOP seats
Women are also winning primaries in red seats this year -- just not enough of them so far to change the composition of the conference next year.
"There are no easy races on the board right now so to see a big increase in numbers they're going to have to come through primaries in safer seats," said GOP consultant Cam Savage, who has long worked with female candidates.
Mary Miller in Illinois' 15th District and Lauren Boebert, who upset five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in Colorado's 3rd District on Tuesday, are the only new women who have won GOP nominations in solid Republican seats so far.
Lynda Bennett, a Trump-backed candidate in North Carolina's solidly red 11th District who did not have the backing of most GOP women's groups, lost in a runoff last month.
Victoria Spartz in Indiana's 5th District and Van Duyne in Texas' 24th District have secured the GOP nods in districts trending toward Republicans. Several more women have made it to upcoming runoffs in seats that are rated as solid Republican or are trending toward Republicans.
Women are running in primaries in other seats where Republicans are favored, like in two Michigan districts, but so far, they're not getting outside firepower to help overcome the fundraising deficit that often hampers women candidates.
Not just a numbers game
But just because a woman does well in a GOP primary hasn't necessarily been reason for celebration for the party.
GOP leadership has had to condemn Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has made racist remarks and embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, now that she's headed to an August runoff for a safe Republican seat in Georgia.
But in Colorado, the NRCC is supporting Boebert, who has talked up some similar QAnon conspiracy views.
"With Lauren's win, we now have more female nominees than at any other point in the history of the Republican Party and that is a point that should be celebrated," NRCC chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement.
But women candidates aren't a monolith, and candidate quality matters especially in a highly partisan atmosphere. "We have great challengers, but it doesn't matter when they're going to make those two household names, and what they're going to say is, 'This is what Republican women look like,'" Conway said.
Conway worked behind the scenes to convince leadership how disastrous Greene's nomination would be, especially for the GOP women in Congress, whom she fears will be tarred by association.
"This is bigger than just, 'Well at least it's a woman.' Like no, no, no, no, no, no -- hard stop -- no."
For Conway, there's another concern, too, about this year's contests. Many of the GOP women who've won nominations in competitive seats will be running against Democratic women, which, while it might satisfy a partisan goal, won't do much to change the face of Congress.
"There's going to be a good number of our best Republican women facing off against Democratic women. So the reality is, if you actually care about electing women, period, we're not going to get that much closer to parity," she said.