Women of both parties must seize the momentum

Bonnie Cash

When Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) announced the launch of E-PAC, a new initiative to support Republican women candidates, the fortunes of Republican women in Washington were at a dismal nadir. Following the 2018 election, their numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives had nearly halved, plunging by 10 seats, and just one lone Republican woman had joined the incoming freshman class of House legislators. Stefanik recognized the dire situation facing the Republican Party, but she was optimistic about a course forward: “I believe that one way we can attempt to change this trend is by supporting strong women candidates pre-primary,” she told the crowd assembled for E-PAC’s launch. “As any candidate will tell you, this early investment is critical.”

Their investment and the investments made by other groups like VIEW PAC, Winning for Women, and Maggie’s List paid off. Republican women more than made back their 2018 losses and went further in setting new records for House seats, non-incumbent women winners in House races, and women in Congress overall. In addition, of the 12 seats that Republicans flipped in the 2020 election, nine were flipped by women. This wasn’t just a matter of Republicans running more women (though they did that, running nearly 100 more women in House races than their previous record set in 2010); they also recruited strong candidates in winnable districts to maximize potential gains.

The 2020 elections were another breakthrough year for women in American politics overall as well. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will become the first woman, and the first woman of color, to serve as vice president of the United States. At the ballot box, women played a crucial role in the presidential election. Women, who have long voted at higher rates than men, supported President-elect Joe Biden (the 2020 gender gap is reported to be around 9 percent), with that support especially high among Black women, Latinas, and in the much-discussed suburban women demographic. 

President Trump, meanwhile, shored up his base with a slim majority of white women voters and the overwhelming support of white women without college degrees. In addition to the gains made by Republican candidates this year, women overall have set new records for seats in Congress and the House. Women of color, likewise, broke records this year and will serve in Congress overall, and in the House in particular, at historically high levels. Democratic women, following their overwhelming successes in the 2018 midterms, have matched their record levels of representation in the House, and, with a number of races that remain too close to call, they could set new records this year as well. For the first time in history, women will have finally surpassed 25 percent of all members of Congress.

Clearing this particular hurdle, however, should remind everyone of the progress still yet unfulfilled. Women, after all, are more than 50 percent of the population of the United States. For all their successes this year, Republican women are still far outnumbered by their Democratic counterparts. The record 36 Republican women so far elected to serve in the 117th Congress are dwarfed by the 105 Democratic women who will take office beside them. In the House, with several races still outstanding, women will make up around 13.6 percent of the Republican caucus (up from just 6.5 percent) while Democratic women will hold roughly 40 percent of the seats in their caucus. This isn’t just a discrepancy of outcomes; it’s a discrepancy of inputs. Republican women were 21.3 percent of their party’s filed House candidates and 22.9 percent of its nominees, while women were 37.9 percent of filed Democratic House candidates and 47.9 percent of their party’s nominees. Neither party is at parity in women’s representation in Congress, but one party is much further down the path.

The 2020 elections were an experiment for the Republican Party. Would expanded recruitment and increased support lead to better outcomes for women in their party? The results of that experiment were enormously successful. 

Now the GOP has to turn that experiment into a long-term strategy for women’s advancement in their party and ensure these results are replicated every cycle moving forward. Both parties need to take advantage of the momentum that brought us past 25 percent and keep building until 50 percent no longer seems like some distant, unattainable future. After all, as Stefanik said at E-PAC’s launch event, “We know that this is not reflective of the American public, and we can and we must do better.”


Walsh is director of The Center for American Women and Politics.

Tags Diversity & Inclusion Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Joe Biden
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