Running for Congress as a Republican woman has never been easy. In 2020, it must feel like someone put a hex on your campaign.
Consider the current outlook in the U.S. Senate, a necessary and increasingly viable target for Democratic control this fall. Four of the nine women who currently occupy Senate seats for the Republican Party are up for reelection this year, and none appear to be better than a slight favorite to win. Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Maine’s Susan Collins, two of the most prominent members in the caucus, have both fallen behind their Democratic rivals in recent polls. Arizona’s Martha McSally is perhaps the most endangered Republican incumbent this cycle, just two years after dropping the state’s other Senate seat in the 2018 midterms. And a special election in Georgia is likely to push out Kelly Loeffler, who has demonstrated no grasp of either electoral strategy or financial rectitude since being controversially appointed in January.
The peril of their situation suggests that the GOP’s efforts to diversify its ranks are headed for at least a near-term defeat, one made more inescapable by the ordeal of the Trump presidency. It also provides an almost pathetic contrast with the golden hour currently enjoyed by the chamber’s female Democrats, nearly half of whom are or have been in consideration for a place on the presidential ticket.
Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Maggie Hassan are all at least reasonable contenders to become the next vice president, while Amy Klobuchar and up-and-comer Catherine Cortez Masto have withdrawn from consideration after early buzz. In retrospect, it’s almost shocking that Biden’s vow to pick a female running mate in March was received as something of an inevitability—but really, were you expecting Beto O’Rourke?
Biden could preemptively commit to choosing a woman for the simple reason that Democrats have vastly outperformed their opponents at recruiting and electing female candidates over the last three decades, affording him an enviable talent pool. When four Democratic women were elected to the Senate in 1992 (two of whom, Patty Murray and Dianne Feinstein, remain there still), the achievement was so incredible that headline writers proclaimed it “the Year of the Woman.” The party has since either replicated or improved upon that performance in 2000, 2012, and 2016.
Democrats have attained these heights not just by identifying women of uncommon political abilities but also by carefully easing their path to high office with institutional support in the form of money and endorsements. Take Duckworth, who has emerged over the last month as a major foil for the right: She was originally tapped to run for a suburban Chicago seat in 2006 by soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. While Duckworth narrowly lost that race, she was nevertheless rewarded with a plum role in the Obama administration that she subsequently used as a springboard into successful bids for the House and Senate. Along the way, her ascent was promoted by luminaries like Emanuel, Obama, and John Kerry.
Republicans haven’t invested anything close to that level of time, energy, and resources to assist promising female politicians. Their attempts to counter the organizing juggernaut of Emily’s List have produced only a string of inferior copies—WISH List, Maggie’s List, the Susan B. Anthony List—that their own donors mostly haven’t heard of. This is likely because Republicans are much less inclined to think that the country would be better off with more women in office, as public polling indicates. One 2018 survey found that Republican women were actually more likely than Republican men to prefer a male candidate.
As a consequence, Republicans elect many fewer women to both state and federal office. The 2018 elections saw 120 women file to run as Republican congressional candidates. All but 13 lost, reducing the GOP’s female House membership by half, even as the Democrats increased their contingent from 64 to a record 89. National Republicans loudly wailed that the situation “can’t get worse,” but it did almost immediately with the retirement announcement of Representative Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican who had taken the lead in recruiting and mentoring new women candidates.
The numbers show just how long this has been a problem. In the elections since 1992’s Year of the Woman, Democratic women (both incumbents and challengers) filed to run for Congress about 2,350 times; that compares with about 1,350 for Republican women, according to data from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. The Democratic candidates have been more likely than the Republicans to win their primaries, and Democratic nominees have been more likely to win their general elections. That’s how you get a situation in which the House boasts more female representatives than ever, while at the same time featuring fewer Republican women than at any time since 1994.
Seeking to bounce back from their present nadir, Republicans have broken their own records this year for both female candidates and primary winners. But most of those nominees are facing tough odds in a cycle when Democrats are seen as likely to build on their majority. There is significant likelihood, in other words, that 2020 will be the second catastrophic election in a row for Republican women.
Overseeing this long decline is President Trump, who has spent the last five years repelling millions of female voters from the Republican brand. He can’t be held responsible for a gender gap that has polarized men and women since at least the 1980s, but he has contributed in every way possible to its historic growth during his administration. Recent surveys show that Trump’s deficit with female voters, which stood at 13 points in the 2016 exit poll, has grown as large as 21 points today.
As more women leave the GOP—including politically savvy activists who otherwise might have helped candidate recruitment efforts or even run for office themselves—it will only become harder for it to transition away from the male-dominated status quo. The example of Barbara Bollier is instructive in this regard: A Republican state lawmaker in Kansas, she broke with the party over her disgust with Trump’s leadership and is now a legitimate threat to deliver Democrats their first Senate win in the state since 1932.
But the president isn’t just driving out voters and allies. He is actively hindering female Republican legislators at the individual level.
Trump’s insistence on appointing Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (even with the eminently qualified and resolutely conservative Amy Coney Barrett available as an alternative) was seen as a slap in the face to women, and much of the political trouble currently facing Susan Collins is the direct result of her tortured decision to support his nomination. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted against Kavanaugh, now has to contend with Trump’s personal promise to campaign against her when she’s up for reelection in 2022.
The White House also pushed hard for Governor Brian Kemp to appoint Trump loyalist Doug Collins to Georgia’s open Senate rather than businesswoman Kelly Loeffler. Now Collins is seen as likely to outmaneuver Loeffler in the November race to keep the seat in Republican hands.
In Iowa and Arizona, both states that went red in 2016 but are battlegrounds this year, Joni Ernst and Martha McSally are forced to walk a tightrope between supporting Trump and appealing to swing voters who have long since abandoned him. It’s a dilemma that former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte would understand completely: A Republican star up for reelection in 2016, she attempted to draw a distinction between “supporting” Trump’s campaign and endorsing him personally, eventually losing the plot—and her seat—in the bargain.
Looking to the future, there is no obvious woman candidate to lead the party in the 2020s. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has painstakingly avoided any perception of a break with Trump, but her loyalty won’t be much of an asset if the president loses big in November. Representative Liz Cheney, the only woman in House Republican leadership, is facing calls from her members to step down after voicing relatively tepid criticism of the administration. Even Ivanka Trump, groomed for years as her father’s successor in both business and politics, has been overtaken by her older brother in hypothetical 2024 scenarios.
The partisan gender gap is like a topographical feature in American elections, defining the landscape and changing only with the passage of political eons. But 2020 has the possibility to intensify the split, bringing into the Democratic Party groups of women who have traditionally resisted its calls. As they race to achieve historic victories for female representation—the first woman president, a Congressional caucus approaching gender parity—the Democrats could seize a demographic advantage for generations to come.