In a year that was supposed to see Democrats' House majority grow, Republicans have expanded their ranks – thanks in large part to a new slate of female lawmakers.
Former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach (R) dealt one of the biggest upsets of the night to longtime Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
Meanwhile, Republican Maria Salazar ousted freshman Rep. Donna Shalala (D) in Florida, while Republican Stephanie Bice defeated freshman Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District. And in South Carolina, Republican Nancy Mace ousted freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham (D).
Six of the eight House seats that were flipped by Republican candidates were flipped by women.
The pivotal role female candidates played in helping the GOP reverse some of its 2018 losses in the House came as the party made a concerted effort to recruit women back into the fold and left Democrats blindsided.
House Republicans added at least 13 new women to their ranks, breaking the party’s previous record of nine non-incumbent GOP women winning their races in 2006, according to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. A total of 23 Republican women were elected on Thursday, along with 83 Democratic women.
Women from both parties broke barriers on Tuesday, with at least 131 women slated to serve in the 117th Congress. However, the Election Night totals were a marked improvement for Republican women two years after the number of female lawmakers serving in the House GOP conference dropped from 23 to 13. On top of that, only one non-incumbent GOP woman was elected in 2018.
“We hit rock bottom,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Winning for Women Action Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing GOP women to public office.
“We had to really reprioritize the way that we approach recruiting and supporting Republican women candidates,” she added.
The story of female Republican candidates in 2020 mirrors the story of female Democratic candidates on a smaller scale. Democrats made history in 2018 when 89 women from their party were elected to the House.
“Efforts on the right lagged for decades, particularly with the existence of Emily’s List,” Perez-Cubas said, referring to the pro-choice PAC aimed at electing Democratic women to office. “There really lacked a clear counterpart and a clear counterweight to that on the right.”
However, a number of GOP groups including Winning for Women, Maggie’s List and Rep. Elise Stefanik’s (R-N.Y.) Elevate PAC have poured money and resources into recruiting and supporting Republican women candidates this cycle.
“What we saw this time around [were] outside groups who made it a priority to recruit and support,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of CAWP. “You absolutely have Elise Stefanik and her PAC, but you also have groups like View PAC, and Winning for Women, and Maggie’s List, who have all come together to start to work to recruit and to support those women when they run.”
Stefanik, who coasted to reelection on Tuesday, is seen as a leader in recruiting Republican women, notably pushing for greater support for female candidates in primaries in 2018.
The New York congresswoman said a number of factors contributed to improving the party’s recruitment efforts, including greater support from party leadership and raising candidates’ profiles early in order to introduce them to donors.
“It was a very public call to action both in the media, searching for candidates, but also among my colleagues in the Republican conference,” Stefanik said. “It was very clear that we needed to do better. I made a public call and I was proud to get the support of my colleagues.”
The success of the Republican effort to recruit more female candidates could be seen earlier this year when data released by CAWP showed a record 195 women running in House races under the party’s banner this year, which was up from a previous record of 133 during the Tea Party wave in 2010.
Stefanik said Tuesday night’s victories for Republican women will only help grow the party’s popularity among female voters, which have tended to historically lean Democratic.
“This is broadening the tent and it’s ensuring that our leadership in elected office are reflective of the diversity of our voters,” Stefanik said. “I think having these women in elected office is going to help us broaden our coalition of voters specifically among women voters.”
However, recruitment leaders also caution that there is still more work to be done to change the culture of the party, especially at the leadership level in the GOP.
“I think it’s going to take a couple more cycles for us to really make that change because the party has consistently stayed in a 1980s-1990s sort of mentality with lobbyists and the special interests and the consultants they’ve used for campaigning instead of embracing fully the new order of campaigning and support of candidates that we’ve lagged behind the Democrats,” said Jennifer Carroll, the executive director of Maggie’s List.
Additionally, the party still has a long way to go until it catches up with its Democratic counterparts when it comes to equal representation of women. Women presently make up seven percent of the Republican caucus, while Democratic women make up over a third of the caucus.