A familiar tale is unfolding in American politics in 2020: Women are once again setting records as candidates for Congress. While the 2018 midterms saw a historic wave of Democratic candidates and general election winners, this time the surge in candidates is among Republican women running for the House.
When the dust settled after the 2018 Democratic wave, the ranks of Republican women had been decimated. Just 13 were left standing. "It was really such a kick to all of the Republican women," Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., told NPR. "We were really not expecting to lose as many as we lost."
Brooks, who is not seeking reelection, was tapped to serve as candidate recruitment chair for the House GOP's campaign operation. Along with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, they set out to recruit more women to run this year.
It's paid off.
"This year we're seeing more Republican women running than ever," said professor Kelly Dittmar with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. CAWP counts at least 217 Republican women who have filed to run for the House, with more state filing deadlines still to come. That's already close to doubling the previous record of 133 filed Republican women candidates a decade ago.
Dittmar says better recruiting is part of it, but also says many women were motivated to run because of what happened in 2018. "I do think there were some women who may have seen the narrative from the last cycle — which was really the attention to Democratic women's success and Republican women's decline in 2018 — and sort of wanted to change the narrative to say, 'The Republican Party isn't bad for women.' "
South Carolina Republican candidate Nancy Mace is one of those women. She is a state representative and a single mother of two. She told NPR her daughter was the first to encourage her to run after a Democrat won her local congressional district for a seat President Trump carried by double-digits. "She turned to me the day after the November 2018 election and said, 'Hey mommy, when are we going to take out [Democratic Rep.] Joe Cunningham?' "
Mace recently won her primary and will face Cunningham this November. She is one of many GOP women candidates with politically compelling biographies who are running this year, which also helped Mace earn the early endorsement of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. "I was the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, and could be the first Republican woman elected to Congress from the state of South Carolina," she said.
The party's candidates are also more diverse. Right now, 45 Republican women have cleared their primaries, putting the party on track to beat their previous record of 53 general election nominees back in 2004. Of those 45, nearly half are women of color.
California Republican Michelle Steel, a first generation Asian American, is challenging a Democratic incumbent for an Orange County-based district. Steel currently serves in local office on the Orange County Board of Supervisors and she last won reelection with 63% of the vote, a cross-party appeal model she thinks she can replicate this November. "You know what? They see me with this accent, they see me, I'm a first generation. They all voted for me."
Often women candidates say they don't want the focus to be just on their gender. And that resonates with Texas Republican nominee Beth Van Duyne, who is running in an open-seat race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant. "I think sometimes it's a cop out if we concentrate on a trait rather than a whole person, and I like to think we see beyond gender and we see beyond the things that divide us but we really look at what the best things are in all of us," she told NPR.
The gender divide is one of the starkest among key demographics in American politics right now under Trump. According to the latest NPR/PBS/Marist poll, former Vice President Joe Biden has an 18 percentage point advantage among women over Trump — even greater than the 13 percentage point advantage that Hillary Clinton saw in 2016. In order to win in competitive and suburban races, Republican women candidates will have to convince women voters who oppose Trump to vote for them — a tricky path in a nationalized election climate.
It remains to be seen how many GOP women will ultimately win their races this November, especially when Democrats are heavily favored to maintain control of the House. Even if this is a record-breaking year for candidates, Republican women still have a longer way to go to find gender parity in their party in the House. Dittmar points out that women make up about 7% of House Republicans, compared to 38% of House Democrats. "It's not to rain on the parade, it's to say, OK this is a start and let's continue and see if this momentum also continues not only through the general election but also in to future cycles," she said.
The record number of Republican women to ever serve at one time is 25. Republicans would need to net at least 15 seats to break that record this November.