Written by Meredith Conroy for FiveThirtyEight on July 8, 2020
More women ran for office in 2018 than ever before, which led to a record number of women in Congress. Overall, the share of House and Senate seats held by women increased by 4 percentage points, from 20 to 24 percent — adding more women to the ranks than in any other election cycle since 1992.
However, these gains were primarily driven by Democratic women, who ran in large numbers: Almost three-quarters of the women who ran for Congress in 2018 were Democrats. But 2020 looks different. More Democratic women are still running for office than Republican women — and more Democratic women are running than in 2018 — but as the chart below shows, the share of all female candidates who are Republican has grown substantially, up from about a quarter in 2018 to 39 percent.
So what explains this sudden uptick in Republican women running? And are GOP women following Democrats’ 2018 playbook or writing their own? More importantly, will this lead to more female representation in Congress? (Remember, despite the strides made in 2018, the numbers of men and women in Congress are far from equal.)
The number of Republican women’s candidacies has lagged behind Democrats for many years now. But as you can see in the chart above, Republican women have had a breakout year before. In 2010, as the tea party movement reached peak popularity, the number of Republican women running for Congress was double what it had been in the previous midterm year — 151 women ran in 2010 compared to just 77 in 2006.
According to Washington College political science professor Melissa Deckman, author of “Tea Party Women,” so many Republican women gained power in the party in 2010 — both electorally and as internal leaders — that some called it the “Year of the GOP Woman.” And in her research, Deckman found that many women who ran for office that year were active in the tea party, capitalizing on the movement’s momentum. But as the tea party movement began losing steam in 2012 and 2014 (or at least started morphing into something different), the number of Republican women running also dropped off. Capitalizing on a political moment, in other words, isn’t necessarily enough to change the overall picture.
It’s true that Democratic women had their own political moment in 2018, fueled at least in part by anger at President Trump’s election in 2016. But Democratic women also tend to be better positioned to run for office than Republican women, who are often more absent from traditional political pipelines, like state legislatures. Plus, historically speaking, there have simply been more organizations geared toward recruiting Democratic women and elite networks willing to finance Democratic women’s campaigns than there are groups that do the same for Republican women. Finally, it doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of Democratic voters agree that there are too few women in political office, whereas just 33 percent of Republicans think so. Having one party fostering a more encouraging environment for women who want to run can help explain why so many more Democratic women are seeking office.
What we’re seeing in 2020, though, might mark a new political moment for Republican women. Like Democrats, they’re motivated by anger — except it’s not toward Trump, said Deckman, but toward the women’s movement his election sparked. Deckman told me that in her earlier interviews with tea party women, she found that many resented the progressive women’s movement, and she thinks that resentment might be motivating GOP women now. “[M]any GOP women felt that those women in those movements do not speak for them,” said Deckman, citing both the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement as events that may have sparked more GOP women to run, telling me that some Republicans may be running to “put out a counternarrative of what women’s interests actually entail.”
Republican women are also being encouraged to run this election cycle by members of their party. The GOP hasn’t historically invested in organizations that recruit and train women to run for office, but there has been a marked shift in the level of this investment since 2018. New organizations like Winning for Women and Elevate-PAC are attempting to mimic the success of women’s groups on the left, like Emily’s List. They are still well behind these groups financially, but Danielle Thomsen, a University of California, Irvine political science professor, told me the importance of these organizations goes beyond just financial support; they also offer symbolic support, which can go a long way in a party where support for women candidates has long been lacking.
Additionally, with Democrats taking back the House in 2018, there are just more opportunities for Republicans to run in open primaries; plus, a wave of retirements in safe Republican districts may have enticed more women to throw their hat into the ring, as a primary victory in those areas nearly guarantees a win in November.
Of course, the wave of Republican women running still have to win their primary and general election contests before they can take office. And according to research by Thomsen, this might be difficult. She found that Republican women are less likely to win their party’s primary compared to Democratic women because they frequently face a much more difficult electoral environment than Democratic women, including, for instance, more competitive primaries. And so far in 2020, a greater share of Democratic women have won their primaries than Republican women. But compared to 2018, because more Republican women are running, more Republican women are winning House primary races, so they are making some progress this year. In fact, GOP women make up 21 percent of their party’s nominees now compared to just 13 percent in 2018, according to the Center for American Women in Politics.
But it might still be difficult for Republican women to translate their primary wins into November victories, as some research finds that Republican women are still less likely to win in the general election compared to Republican men. One possible factor is that historically, Republican women have tended to be more politically moderate than Republican men, according to research by Thomsen, which has hurt them as voters have become increasingly ideological. That said, Thomsen told me that “the Republican women running for Congress right now are just as conservative as the Republican men,” and she thinks this may be a permanent shift. Given this development, Thomsen told me she thinks the Republican women running in 2020 may fare just as well as their male counterparts.
Losing an election is not necessarily the end of the road for a candidate, though. Many women who lose their races rebound and run again. For instance, according to a working paper by Thomsen, women who lost a race for a House seat from 1980 to 2014 were no less likely to rebound than men who lost. And this year, a number of women who lost in 2018 are running again. According to data from the Center for American Women in Politics, 93 women (64 Democrats and 29 Republicans) are likely to run for office again after losing a bid for Congress or a statewide office two years ago.
It’s not clear what this all means for 2020, but at this point, more Republican women are running, and they stand a real chance of increasing their numbers in Congress. Even for those who lose their races, this could be a turning point. As Thomsen told me, running is half the battle. “People who already ran have donors and volunteers,” said Thomsen. “Plus, [if the race was close] they almost won — which is no small feat! A lot of campaign groundwork is already laid.” That could pay huge dividends for Republican women in 2020, helping them turn a newfound political moment into longer-term progress for the GOP.
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