The widening chasm between the number of Democratic and Republican women in Congress may threaten Republican prospects in the midterm elections
Much of the chatter among US political poll-watchers this summer was about the “gender gap,” the margin by which American women vote for Democrats over Republicans. The furious reaction by women to the recent US senate hearings over sexual misconduct by US supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh seems likely to extend that gap to record margins. But the bigger long-term problem for the Republican party may be the widening chasm between the number of Democratic and Republican women in Congress.
Congress has long been a lopsidedly male place. There have only been 52 women senators in the entire history of the United States, and it took until 2011 for women legislators to get a restroom near the floor of the House of Representatives. Congress is still about 80% male, so gender parity is a long way off. But that figure blurs the imbalance between a Democratic caucus where one-third of the members are women and Republican caucus where women are only around one-tenth of the membership.
And the 3-to-1 ratio by which Democratic congresswomen outnumber Republican congresswomen may soon become even more imbalanced. According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, there are over 200 Democratic women running for Congress this year (15 in the Senate, 187 in the House) but only 60 Republican women (8 in the Senate, 52 in the House).
There were approximately the same numbers of Republican and Democratic women in Congress 30 years ago. A key turning point occurred in 1985 with the founding of Emily’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women. Since then, Democrats have beaten the Republicans at every turn in developing recruitment networks for women candidates, encouraging them to run, and connecting them with mentors and fundraisers.
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, many Republicans appeared to understand the need to narrow the gender gap, both in voting and in women’s representation in Congress. The Republican National Committee’s 2013 “autopsy” report highlighted “the party’s negative image among women” and emphasized how essential it was “to improve our brand with women throughout the country and grow the ranks of influential female voices in the Republican Party.” But the Republican leadership largely ignored these recommendations. Making matters worse, Donald Trump, both as candidate and president, has gone out of his way to make comments widely perceived as insulting toward women — most recently with his mocking of Kavanaugh’s accuser and the Me Too movement.
The 2016 defeat of the first woman to win the popular vote for president, at the hands of the nation’s most famous self-proclaimed pussy-grabber, enraged and energized Democratic women. Thousands moved off the sidelines to enter the political arena as activists and candidates. Many of the important political actions of the past year — including the 2018 women’s march, Me Too, teachers’ strikes, protests against family separation policies in immigration, and rallies for gun control — were driven by women who vehemently object to the policies of both Trump and the Republican party.
President Trump has not had any such galvanizing effect on Republican women. All summer long, majorities of women told pollsters that they feel the president damages American values, that they don’t trust his handling of issues such as immigration, and that they resent the way he disparages prominent women. One poll found that even among Republicans, only 31% of women said that they strongly approve of the way Trump is handling his job, compared to 68% of men.
While Democratic women candidates have put themselves forward as existential refutations of Trump and the ingrained societal sexism they feel he represents, Republican women have been reluctant to adopt “identity politics” or claim their gender as an electoral advantage. And, given that many Republican women candidates this year were moderates taking part in closed primaries (in which only registered party members can vote), they were at a disadvantage in contests that rewarded ideological extremism and unqualified loyalty to Trump.
While the number of Republican women running for Congress this year actually represents a modest improvement upon the party’s past standards, it’s dwarfed by the Democrats’ record-breaking totals. In fact, while the number of Republican women who filed as House candidates this year went up by 11% compared to 2016, Democratic women’s numbers soared by a whopping 87%.
In years past, the shortage of Republican women legislators, and the much-ballyhooed gender gap, didn’t make much of an electoral difference. Over the past several cycles, Republicans did, after all, secure huge majorities in both the House and Senate, gain control of record numbers of state legislatures and governorships, and win the White House in 2016.
But the gender gap now feels like a real threat to Republican prospects in 2018. The midterm elections are bound to be a referendum not only on Trump but on the Kavanaugh hearings. Members of both parties tried to avoid a replay of the 1991 Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, a debacle which exposed the Senate before the nation as a club of clueless, sexist white men. But it was impossible not to notice that the Kavanaugh hearings took place before a Senate Judiciary Committee whose majority is made up of 11 Republican men and zero women. In fact, not a single Republican woman has ever served on the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans could offset the claim that they’re indifferent to women’s issues if they could demonstrate a record of having elevated significant numbers of women into positions of power in Congress — but they can’t. Only one woman, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, chairs a standing committee in the senate. Not a single woman was a member of the Senate’s all-male, all-Republican working group on health care that crafted last year’s Obamacare repeal legislation. The Trump White House has assembled the most predominantly male cabinet since Ronald Reagan’s.
The bad optics of a Republican party that seems to give short shrift to women will be on prominent display in this year’s midterm elections because of the gender imbalance in the candidates running in the slightly more than 100 House swing districts that the Cook Political Report deems to be up for grabs. On the Republican side, women candidates in these critical races are outnumbered more than four to one by men (85-19). But on the Democratic side, there are actually more women running than men (53-51). And where there are races that pit a woman of one party against a man of the other, there are a mere 9 Republican women facing male Democratic candidates, compared to 40 Democratic women facing male Republican candidates.
These are the House races that will receive the lion’s share of media coverage between now and November, and they will offer a very bad look indeed for a Republican party that seeks to present itself as open to women. Many of these races will take place in the suburban districts that are chock-full of the college-educated women who have turned most fiercely against Trump and are most outraged by the Kavanaugh hearings. If, as most analysts predict, it will be an advantage to be a woman running in such a district, then the Republican Party faces a wipeout.
Republican Party officials long claimed to be working on narrowing the gender gap, but not enough was done and now the bill for inaction comes due. It seems likely that the 2018 elections will provide the male-dominated Republican party with a painful lesson on the need to value the perspectives, demands, and capabilities of American women.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party
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