Republican Women Are in Crisis

In the past 10 years, they have become an endangered species on the political stage.

by Nancy L. Cohen

The 2010s were a transformative decade for women in politics. But the biggest trend has been obscured by 2018’s female-led Democratic wave in Congress: G.O.P. women, at both the national and state levels, are on the brink of extinction.

Republicans will ring in the new year with only 13 women in the House of Representatives, the lowest number since 1993, and eight women in the Senate. (There are, for comparison, 88 Democratic women in the House and 17 Democratic women in the Senate.)

The prospects for Republican women looked quite different at the decade’s start. Pundits heralded 2010 as the Year of the Republican Woman. In a speech that spring, Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, touted her endorsements for the election of “common-sense conservative women.”

“Look out, Washington, because there’s a whole stampede of pink elephants crossing the line,” she said.

For a moment, it seemed that Ms. Palin and her pack of “Mama Grizzlies” would become the prime beneficiaries of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Yet as 2020 begins, Republicans have Ms. Palin and her brand of right-wing populism — revived and carried on by Donald Trump — to thank for the endangered state of the Republican woman.

The first casualties of Ms. Palin’s pro-woman campaign were some of the G.O.P.’s most influential and respected female leaders. Even though Ms. Palin promoted herself as the leader of a new conservative feminism, she went on the attack, endorsing men against both Kay Bailey Hutchison, who resigned her Senate seat to run for governor of Texas, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Senate incumbent. (Ms. Palin’s candidate in Texas, Rick Perry, defeated Ms. Hutchison. Ms. Palin’s candidate in Alaska won the Republican primary, but Ms. Murkowski prevailed as a write-in candidate in the general election.)

To be sure, Palin’s 2010 support did give a boost to some female Republican candidates for Congress. Republican women increased their numbers in the House to 24 from 17; Ms. Palin had endorsed six of the nine new congresswomen, as well as the one new Senator, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Likewise, Ms. Palin’s endorsements helped Republican women running for governor. Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez won competitive primaries in South Carolina and New Mexico, respectively, and became the first women of color ever elected governor.

Yet Ms. Hutchison’s and Ms. Murkowski’s experiences were harbingers of the troubles ahead for Republican women. In 2012, female voters, outraged over G.O.P. attacks on Planned Parenthood and access to birth control, powered President Barack Obama to re-election and denied Republicans two winnable Senate seats. Republican women’s representation in Congress decreased by 21 percent, while Democratic women increased theirs by 26 percent.

Acknowledging the party’s mistakes with female voters, the G.O.P. fielded female candidates in the 2014 midterms who could appeal more broadly. These candidates downplayed their social conservatism and leaned in to their biographies as glass-breaking female leaders. In 2014, Martha McSally, the nation’s first female fighter pilot to serve in combat, won the Republican primary in a swing district in Arizona. Elise Stefanik, then the youngest congresswoman ever elected, was chosen to be co-chairwoman of the party’s moderate caucus.

With the exception of her endorsement of Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ms. Palin played a minor role in the 2014 midterm victories. Her days as queen-maker seemed over. Most signs suggested that Republican pragmatism would prevail going forward.

The rise of Donald Trump eliminated any chance of that. The signs of women’s disillusionment with the party were immediate. One day after President Trump’s inauguration, an estimated four million people, mostly women, participated in hundreds of women’s marches throughout the United States. In the months that followed, women mobilized to defeat Republicans at the federal, state and local levels.

In the 2018 midterms, every Republican congresswoman from the 2014 class except for Ms. Stefanik lost. Martha McSally was defeated, though she was appointed by Arizona’s Republican governor to fill John McCain’s Senate seat after Mr. McCain died. She faces a tough election battle in 2020.

Despite winning three governors’ races and one open Senate seat in 2018, Republican women will end the decade with their governors and senators outnumbered two to one by their Democratic counterparts. Three of the four current female Republican senators running in 2020 face highly competitive elections in 2020. There are more than six times as many Democratic women as Republican women in the House.

Granted, Republicans — both men and women — have suffered dramatic losses in elections at national, state and local levels since 2016; they have lost control of the House, eight governorships and nine state legislative chambers since Mr. Trump’s election. But female Republican candidates and officeholders face an existential threat.

Mr. Trump’s misogyny and the party’s far-right stance on issues such as abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, guns and immigration have driven away many female voters. Women favor the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a 19-point margin, according to the Pew Research Center. Seventy-three percent of women under the age of 30 disapprove of the president’s performance, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll.

Suburban and college-educated white women, once reliable Republican voters, have fled the party in droves since Mr. Trump’s election. According to the Brookings Institution, white college educated women increased their vote for Democrats by 13 points between 2016 and 2018. Among women, only white evangelicals remain firmly committed to the G.O.P. and Mr. Trump.

The alienation of female voters from the Republican Party is compounded by the indifference, at best, of Republican men to female candidates.

Together, these two trends have decimated the ranks of Republican women officeholders.

The party’s veer to the right over the 2010s has placed nearly all Republican women with political ambition in a precarious position. Not surprisingly, in this environment, Republican women are reluctant to step up as candidates. This is a rational decision, some political science research shows. Other studies suggest that G.O.P. voters perceive women to be more moderate than men and are therefore less likely to vote for women. Small wonder that Representative Susan Brooks, the head of the Republicans’ House recruitment efforts for the next election cycle, will herself not seek re-election in 2020.

To survive, most Republican women have tethered themselves to President Trump. Senator Susan Collins, a onetime moderate with a bipartisan record, provided the deciding vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She will face Maine voters in 2020 as the nation’s second-most-unpopular senator. Ms. Stefanik emerged in the Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry as one of Mr. Trump’s most outspoken defenders. Mr. Trump took notice, tweeting, “A new Republican Star is born.”

Yet not all female Republican politicians have thrown in their lot with the president. Senator Lisa Murkowski opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation and is the only G.O.P. senator thus far to have broken ranks over the process for the Senate’s impeachment trial.

In the House, at least six Republican congresswomen have maintained some distance from the president. Well aware of how Mr. Trump’s demands for loyalty have endangered their colleagues, they have tended to lie low, neither publicly embracing nor criticizing Mr. Trump, while consistently voting in line with his positions.

Several of these Republican congresswomen represent suburban areas. A few — Ann Wagner of Missouri, Jackie Walorski of Indiana and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — restarted the G.O.P. suburban caucus in November. In an effort to appeal to working suburban women, they focus on issues like paid maternity leave and the cost of child care.

The handful of congresswomen who have never fully embraced Mr. Trump and Trumpism are the party’s best hope for a renewed appeal to women voters.

Right now, there are hardly enough of them to field a softball team.

Should Mr. Trump lose re-election, these Republican women could provide the leadership for rebuilding the party among women. If Mr. Trump wins, given his unpopularity with female voters, the future for Republican women in politics looks very bleak indeed.

Nancy L. Cohen (@nancylcohen) is an author and historian.

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