POLITICAL COMMENTATORS are calling 2018 the “year of the woman” based on the record-breaking number of women running for Congress this year. According to estimates from the Center for American Women and Politics, 575 women have declared their intention to run for either U.S. Congress or a gubernatorial seat in 2018. There are nearly 60 percent more female candidates in 2018 than there were in 2016.
For Republican female candidates, however, their year of the woman has not yet arrived. CAWP data estimates that Democrats make up nearly 80 percent of current female congressional candidates, and nearly two-thirds of female state legislature candidates. A variety of factors, furthermore, suggest those numbers won’t even out anytime soon.
“I think it’s really a shame that there aren’t more Republican women running,” said Lindsay Brown, a Republican congressional candidate in New Jersey’s 7th District, “especially because right now, the example that most people see in the media of Republican women is still that lasting, burning image of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, which is really toxic to the stereotype of what a Republican woman actually is.”
In 2016, 41 percent of all women and 52 percent of white women voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. Since then, women — primarily Democratic ones — have been speaking out against the president in record numbers. A June 2017 study conducted by Politico, American University and Loyola Marymount University found that 40 percent of Democratic women have become more active in politics after the election, compared to only 8 percent of Republican women, which experts say is a big reason for the gap among female candidates.
“Republican women really have to make a hard choice between, ‘Am I going to be a traditional Republican, pro-Trump-administration candidate or am I going to speak out when the administration says horrible things?’ ” Republican Women for Progress co-founder Jennifer Lim said. “Either way, Republican women are kind of screwed, so I think that’s dampening some women’s energy for running this year.”
Lim’s organization emerged as an offshoot from a 2016 organization called Republican Women for Hillary, which Lim co-founded last year to oppose Trump. Lim spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year in favor of Hillary Clinton. This year, RWFP is training female conservative candidates interested in running for office to fight against what they call Trump’s “divisive” rhetoric.
Even before the 2016 election, however, the number of Republican female candidates was already falling behind the Democrats. Research shows women overall are significantly less likely than men to run for office, especially when they don’t feel actively recruited or fully qualified. Experts and research say that Democrats have more infrastructure in place to help potential female candidates overcome these barriers, which consequently means liberal women are more likely to run than conservative women.
“On the Republican side, those [recruiting] organizations really don’t exist,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University and a co-author of the Politico study. “Republicans are able to win elections without fielding more female candidates. Why should they change anything they’re doing when they currently have unified control in Washington?”
Emily’s List, a Democratic PAC that helps fund pro-choice, progressive female candidates, has spent $26.4 million dollars so far in the 2018 midterm election cycle, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. In comparison, Republican equivalent Maggie’s List has spent $60,00 on conservative female candidates. Research shows that Democratic party is just as likely to recruit a female candidate as a male candidate, while the Republican party is almost two times more likely to recruit a male candidate.
“The Republican party in general is not really putting a lot of effort into recruiting women this year, because it’s a midterm year – they already know they’re going to lose some seats, so why bother,” Lim said. “On the Democratic side, there are a ton of awesome women running, but on the Republican women’s side, it’s much more complicated.”
But once a female candidate from either party is on the ballot, Lawless said that data from the last 50 years show she is just as likely to win on Election Day as a male candidate.
“The issue is not that voters won’t vote for women – the issue is that women are less likely to run in the first place,” Lawless said. “And in the Trump era, a response to Donald Trump’s policy and personality has been energy on the Democratic side. But that doesn’t mean that the women who emerge this cycle as conservative Republicans won’t have as good a shot at winning as male conservative Republicans.”
The complicated electoral atmosphere has also created a space for less typically conservative candidates to run. Brown, 29, who’s running for the House in New Jersey, describes herself as ideologically similar to Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite some policy differences with the national GOP, she said she decided to run as a Republican so she could help the party from within.
“If democracy is a neighborhood, and the Democrats and Republicans are next door neighbors, and you see that your neighbor’s house is on fire and threatening to burn down the whole neighborhood, do you sit there and laugh at them?” she asked. “Or do you run into the building and help put out the fire?” So far, she says, both the national party and voters in her district have been receptive to that message.
Dana Wefer, a Republican candidate running for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, previously ran for political office as a Democratic candidate. She switched parties after experiencing what she said was “corruption” among state Democrats. But she said experienced no additional barriers to running as a female Republican compared to running as a female Democrat.
“The reception has been tremendous,” Wefer said. “Uniformly, I have had Republican women, after I speak at an event, come up to me and say ‘We need strong, outspoken women to be elevated in Republican leadership.’ ”
In an environment where women comprise 20 percent of all elected officials to begin with, Brown said that it’s especially important for conservative women to consider running no matter what part of the Republican spectrum they fall on.
“A lot of the conservative men who run for office are out of touch with what average people actually go through,” Brown said. “Women are the majority voting bloc, and we’re typically more empathetic to the economic and social issues that other people are going through.”