By Michele L Swers
January 5, 2021
It’s been a banner year for Republican women in Congress. Incumbent Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Susan Collins (Maine) won competitive races, making it possible for their party to hold its Senate majority if it wins at least one of the Georgia Senate runoffs.
Republican women gained more dramatically in the House, increasing their number from 13 to 28, the most, and bringing the GOP within a few seats of claiming the majority. Of the 13 seats that Republicans took from Democrats, women won 10 — and may win another as-yet-uncalled race in New York. Just two years ago, when Democrats swept the elections in 2018, the number of Republican congresswomen dropped from 23 to 13, their lowest since 1993.
Why are there so many new Republican women in the House? Because the GOP made it a prime concern. Their numbers could change Republican priorities and perspectives in the new Congress.
How did more Republican women win in 2020?
Democrats have typically elected more women than have Republicans. Because women generally hesitate to run for office more than men do, Democrats and allied political organizations such as Emily’s List have worked to recruit and raise money for more female candidates. Republicans have tended to reject identity politics, making it harder to sell donors on the need to elect more women. In fact, while most Democratic donors are familiar with Emily’s List, Republican donors generally do not know the various groups working to elect Republican women; these groups raise far less money than does Emily’s List.
Women who donate to Democratic candidates are particularly eager to elect women, whereas women who donate to Republicans typically care about candidates’ conservatism more than their gender. Furthermore, Republican women who aren’t incumbents but have previous experience holding office, such as serving as a state lawmaker or city council member, generally had more difficulty raising money than similarly situated Republican men.
But in 2020, House Republicans worked harder to recruit and fund female candidates. Rep. Susan Brooks (Ind.), this year’s National Republican Congressional Committee’s recruitment chair, made identifying and supporting female candidates a priority. After few Republican women were elected in 2018, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) launched a leadership PAC that focused media and party attention on the need to recruit more women. Her PAC worked with other organizations, particularly Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, in identifying and funding female candidates.
While female Republican House members had previously worked together to push for the election of more women, in 2020, the top male Republican leaders joined in promoting female candidates and opening their fundraising networks to them.
How will these GOP women shape policy?
Members bring their life experiences to the policymaking table. Increased numbers of women in the Republican caucus means more voices articulating experiences as mothers, daughters, individual workers and employers trying to navigate a challenging economy or manage caregiving responsibilities. The newly elected Republican women bring more diversity to a historically White male GOP conference, including two Korean Americans, two Latinas and one Native American. Given these backgrounds, they may emphasize different issues and propose alternative policy prescriptions.
At the same time, these women ran as Republican partisans and are entering an increasingly polarized Congress. Since each house of Congress is controlled by narrow margins, Republicans will probably want to differentiate themselves from Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and a narrow House Democratic majority, not to cooperate with them. This will reduce opportunities for legislating.
Three groups of GOP women to watch
The party will be eager to use these women to advertise Republican policies and encourage suburban women who have drifted away to return to the party. Some of the more moderate women who flipped Democratic seats include Young Kim (R-Calif.) and Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), the latter of whom describes herself as a “minivan-driving mom.” They may look for common ground with Democrats, hoping for opportunities for bipartisan work to demonstrate their effectiveness to their districts. At the other end of the spectrum, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) have been associated with QAnon — and may cause headaches for the party.
Several Republican women with greater House seniority hold important party and committee leadership positions. As Republican conference chair, Liz Cheney(Wyo.) will continue driving party messaging strategy, and Stefanik is seen as a rising star.
Women serving as ranking Republicans of key committees include Kay Granger (Tex.) on Appropriations, Virginia Foxx (N.C.) on Education and Labor, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) on Energy and Commerce. The Energy and Commerce Committee will be significant, since the incoming Biden administration promises to focus on the economy, health care and climate change. And in a divided Congress, many issues will be dealt with in must-pass spending bills spearheaded by the Appropriations Committee. That will elevate the importance of Granger’s ability to work with incoming chair Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). DeLauro is expected to emphasize issues such as paid family leave and increased child-care spending, seeing them as important to the economic recovery.
In the Senate, Republican women will have more influence, whether there is a slim Republican majority or a 50-50 split that, with Vice President Kamala D. Harris as the tiebreaker, puts Democrats in control. The Biden administration is likely to court moderate women such as Collins and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — both of whom helped jump-start negotiations over the latest coronavirus relief bill. To reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden views as one of his career accomplishments, he will need to work with Ernst, herself a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. She and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) failed to reach a deal in 2020.
Looking ahead, more numbers means more leverage, and conservative women’s perspectives will increasingly influence congressional policymaking.
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