WASHINGTON POST: GOP women’s record-breaking success reflects party’s major shift on recruiting and supporting female candidates

By Rachel Bade

Published December 7, 2020

Republican Beth Van Duyne was skeptical when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) showed up in Dallas and asked her to run for Congress in mid-2019.

The former mayor of Irving, Tex., was well-known in the community as a glass-ceiling breaker in the local boys’ club of GOP politicians. And she was already well-versed in the complications of balancingpublic and personal life as the mother of two.

Once, early in her political career, her toddler interrupted a high-stakes political call by getting on the phone line andloudly demandinghelp in the bathroom.She faced attacks from some conservatives who called her selfish for running for office instead of staying home with her family; some even said they wouldn’t vote for her because she was a woman.

As a divorced, single mother putting one child through college and raising another, she told McCarthy that she couldn’t afford to quit her job — not to mention spend days apart from her family. But McCarthy was on a mission and made his pitch.

“You’d be phenomenal,” he told Van Duyne, then a top Trump administration official for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “And we will help you.”

Over the next few months, as she ran on a platform of fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act and support for President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall, Republicans in Washington did just that: Theyput Van Duyne in touch with other GOP women with young families who sought elective office and called in allies to help raise money. They got Trump’s endorsement for her in a crowded primary dominated by men. And ultimately, Van Duyne won in a suburban district between Fort Worth and Dallas that was a top target for Democrats — despite being outspent by millions.

“From the day that I said, ‘Go,’ I really felt like not only did I have the support, but also had resources,” Van Duyne said in an interview. “It made me feel like I was part of a team, not just out on my own.”

Van Duyne is one of the 17 newly elected Republican women who will give the party a record number of female lawmakers in Congress, the results of a successful strategy of recruiting and supporting women running for office. Of the 13 Democratic incumbents who lost their seats on election night, Republican women were responsible for defeating 10. In January, Republicans will welcome their most ethnically diverse and gender-diverse freshman class in history as women and lawmakers of color join their predominantly White and male ranks.

While these women see their gender as an added benefit for party diversity — and not as the core of their brand — the recruitment effort behind their success nonetheless reflects a major shift: Republicans have long claimed to reject “identity politics,” while watching their appeal shrink largely to White men. Democrats, on the other hand, promote women and minorities regularly, as their numbers have grown and women such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris shatter glass ceilings.

Now, as a result of their extraordinary new support network, Republicans can point to their own gains, including at least 28 voting women in the House and nine female senators next year. GOP women lead in two House races in Iowa and New York that Democratic candidates are contesting. Others, such as former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, are seen as potential future presidential candidates.

“What [GOP leaders] learned from the cycle is that women can win,” said Sarah Chamberlain, a GOP strategist who runs the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership and has been trying to elect more women for years. “As a woman, as a mother of a daughter, I think it is a huge step forward. … We need to be well-represented here on both sides of the aisle.”

The newcomers who ran as Trump supporters are solidly conservative, opposed to abortion and have called for fiscal discipline after the GOP helped Trump increase the national debt by $7 trillion. Van Duyne, for instance, backs Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers.

Several are making plans to directly challenge the liberal “Squad” led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) by tapping into their own personal stories of families who fled communism and socialism.

Some also carry a fiercely pragmatic streak or offer moving stories. Rep.-elect Nancy Mace revealed last year that she was raped at age 16, a dramatic moment in a contentious South Carolina legislature debate over a bill banning abortion. She pleaded for the measure to make exceptions for incest and rape.

Rep.-elect Michelle Park Steel (Calif.), who came to the United States from South Korea at age 19, still practices her English every morning by reading aloud and cross-checking her pronunciation on a phone app.

Rep.-elect Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.) — the daughter of Cuban refugees and a bilingual TV anchor who has grilled the late dictator Fidel Castro of Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez — flipped a Democratic seat in a Miami-based district where Hillary Clinton won by 20 points in 2016. Rep.-elect Victoria Spartz, who emigrated from Ukraine 20 years ago, held on to a GOP seat in Indiana, dashing Democratic hopes.

Republicans still trail Democrats in the total number of women in Congress. Democrats will have 89 voting members in the House and 16 in the Senate next year. Still, the gains are remarkable as the Trump-era party has struggled to win the support of female voters — and two years after GOP women in the House saw their numbers decimated.

The unexpected wins also came as Democrat Joe Biden captured the presidency, defeating Trump by more than 7 million votes nationally. The GOP gains narrowed the Democrats’ advantage and put McCarthy in a prime position to claim the House majority in 2022, with Republican women carrying the party’s message — and possibly increasing its ranks.

“We can’t stop here, we can’t stop now, and we’ve got to do it every two years until the Republican Party reflects the faces of America,” said Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel. “That means half of us need to be women.”

‘I wasn’t asking for permission’

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) was unhappy when the 2018 midterm election results started to roll in the night of Nov. 6. As the first female head of recruitment at the GOP’s campaign arm, she had persuaded more than 100 women to run for office, but without assistance, only one had made it through her primary.

Then, in the general election, several of her female colleagues lost their seats, shrinking their ranks from 23 to a paltry 13. After the debacle, Stefanik approached GOP leaders with a message and a demand: This should be a wake-up call. We need to do more to support female candidates.

Other Republican women came to the same conclusion. During a meeting at the National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters, Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and other female lawmakers pressed incoming NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) to do something to address what they called “a crisis situation.” Outside Congress, female GOP strategists also started to discuss how to fix the party’s problems with electing women.

Republican women were running, but often they lost to men in the primaries. Stefanik proposed that she give up her role at the campaign committee to start her own political operation, helping female candidates win nominations and make it to the general election.

At first, the message didn’t resonate with some men in the party. The NRCC rarely plays in primaries — let alone on the basis of gender. And Emmer told a reporter that the idea of doing so, at least at the campaign committee, was a “mistake.”

Stefanik shot back on Twitter: “NEWSFLASH: I wasn’t asking for permission.” The uproar among the remaining GOP women in the House was so great that McCarthy agreed — it was time to prioritize female candidates.

‘My accent is my story’

House Republicans set about building a strong recruitment and support network, eager to reverse the damage of the 2018 midterms. McCarthy, Stefanik and the new campaign committee recruitment chair, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), began reaching out and encouraging women to run, pledging to support them with advice, endorsements and finances if they would take the plunge.

Stefanik called a longtime acquaintance in New York, Nicole Malliotakis, a daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants who once ran for New York mayor, to gauge whether the state assemblywoman wanted to challenge Rep. Max Rose. A moderate Democrat, Rose had been a surprise winner in 2018, capturing a Staten Island-based district that had backed Trump two years earlier.

Brooks called Stephanie Bice, a state senator in Oklahoma, assessing her interest in challenging Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), another unexpected winner who had flipped a long-held Republican seat in 2018.

The GOP team would often connect women concerned about the challenge of campaigning and parenting with Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), 44, who was raising young children while serving in Congress. It also provided financial backing through a network that included not only GOP leaders, but also Stefanik’s outside group, E-PAC, as well as GOP groups dedicated to electing Republican women, including Winning for Women and View PAC.

McCarthy endorsed 11 female candidates in the primaries, putting his thumb on the scale to help clear the field. Occasionally, he would ask Trump to tweet his backing, too, ensuring the GOP candidates had the best chance possible.

Some pursued seats without any prompting. Iowa state Rep. Ashley Hinson knocked on the NRCC’s door seeking support before they had settled in their new offices after the 2018 election. Rep.-elect Lisa McClain, a longtime business executive who won in Michigan, jumped into the race when her daughter told her over dinner to stop complaining about politics and do something.

Others needed a little coaxing. Salazar and Young Kim of California had already run and narrowly lost to Democrats in 2018. McCarthy personally appealed to them to give it one more shot, vowing help.

As Republicans recruited, they pursued potential candidates who looked more like the diverse nation.One effort centered on Steel, who was born in South Korea, raised in Japan, where her father was a diplomat, then emigrated to the United States after his death.

Steel, who attended college while helping her mother run a small clothing shop, decided to get involved in politics after her mother’s store faced what she viewed as unfair taxes. Steel ran for the local position overseeing those levies and worked to repeal them.

When House Republicans lost seven California seats in the 2018 midterms — in part due to eroding suburban support in traditionally conservative Orange County — attention swiftly turned to Steel, then a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Two ousted GOP incumbents, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher, personally called Steel to persuade her to run. So too did McCarthy and other members of the California delegation.

At first Steel wasn’t sure what to do. As a first-generation immigrant, she worried her accent might create challenges. But her advisers told her to embrace who she was, that her American Dream story would actually make her a strong candidate. She did, declaring on the trail that “My accent is my story,” before narrowly defeating Rep. Harley Rouda (D) inan upset.

‘I don’t consider myself a feminist’

Mace, an antiabortion conservative, grew angry as she listened to the debate in the South Carolina legislature in the spring of 2019. Her male GOP colleagues had been arguing for a bill to ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected no matter the circumstance, claiming that women would take advantage of a rape or incest exception by lying about an assault.

When she had heard enough, Mace rose, strode to the well of the chamber and gripped the lectern, her knuckles turning white. She revealed how she was raped 25 years earlier and rejected her predominantly male colleagues’ baseless claims. Her speech went viral, the exceptions were added to the bill, but months later they were stripped out.

The moment crystallized for Mace the importance of having women at the table in the Republican Party. And yet Mace, who in 2019 also led an effort to unshackle pregnant women in jails and intentionally employed an all-female campaign staff in her win over Rep. Joe Cunningham (D), said in an interview: “I don’t consider myself a feminist.”

The comments highlight a continued contradiction for the GOP as it weighs whether to prioritize female candidates. Republican women are adamant that they not be seen as getting preferential treatment because of their gender. And for years, that fear of being accused of playing “the woman card” kept even the most high-profile female GOP politicians from talking about being a woman on the campaign trail.

But now, Republican women see a problem in their party; they need more women in power. Part of the solution can mean articulating that case, including the value of choosing a female candidate over a man.

Hinson, who ousted a rising Democratic star, Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), said she ran strong in some Democratic-leaning areas “because I was out there saying … I’m a mom with the minivan who is accessible and transparent.”

“I ran for office because I’m the right candidate, regardless of my gender,” she said. “Absolutely, most of the women that I’ve been talking to feel that way: We were the best candidates, but not because of our gender. I think what gender does bring into it is, it’s a more representative Congress when it has more Republican women. … I’m going to have a different perspective than a man.”

Bice, who will be the first Iranian American in Congress, encapsulated that paradox. She ran for the Oklahoma Senate in part because there were so few women at the table, but the notion of diversifying the U.S. House never came up in her recruitment conversations. She, along with Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation who defeated Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), were quick to say they did not speak about the value of adding female voices to the party on the campaign trail.

“It’s not about me being a female. It’s about me having experience and insight and knowing what makes sense and what’s good for Oklahoma. And I just happen to be a female, too,” Bice said.

But “diversity of thought” Bice later added, “is really important.” Mothers, she said, bring a different policy perspective then men — and Republicans need more of that.

Meet the ‘Anti-Squad’

House GOP leaders expect the new class of women to become central to their messaging for the next election, when they try to reclaim the House majority in 2022. They think some of their recruits will be powerful messengers — particularly when it comes to countering some self-described Democratic socialists.

Three of the incoming women — Malliotakis, Salazar and Spartz — had family who escaped socialist or communist rule, or personally did themselves. They have already discussed the idea of forming a group to push back on Ocasio-Cortez and members of the liberal “Squad.”

“What really unites us is that we have a message to share with the American people,” Malliotakis said, recounting stories of her grandfather losing his small business in Cuba. “We can never allow that to occur here in the United States. And it’s personal to us.”

Salazar defeated Rep. Donna Shalala (D), the former president of the University of Miami and a Clinton administration official, as GOP attacks on Democrats as “socialists” — even those who rejected the label — struck a chord with Hispanic voters whose families lived under authoritarian regimes in Latin America.

Salazar said she wants to sit down with Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal Democrats to challenge their views of what’s good for the nation. In fact, it was one of the reasons she ran.

“I was sitting in [McCarthy’s] office and I thought, you know, I’m Cuban American, and we know what socialism means. … I have two choices: I can do what’s right, or I can do what’s easy,” she said. “Socialism is the inferno. And you have to run away from it. So that is why I’m here.”

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