The most-told story of the 2018 mid-term elections was the historic gains made by women across different levels of office and nationwide. However, these gains were not made equally across party lines. In fact, the story of 2018 for Republican women was actually quite bleak, particularly in light of the overall historic nature of the election year. As a result of the 2018 election, the number of Republican women dropped in the U.S. House, in statewide elected executive offices, and in state legislatures. The number of Republican women serving in the U.S. House today (13) is the same as it was in 1990. Party differences were evident earlier in the process, too; while the number of Democratic women running increased by 100% from 2016 to 2018, the number of Republican women only increased by just 26.3%. These facts should trouble Republican leadership and have elicited calls to action from Republican women in leadership positions. They also beg the question: will this downward trajectory for Republican women continue or not in election 2020?
With the 2020 primary season in full swing, I take inventory of trends in Republican women running for the U.S. House over the last 30 years, noting particularly how things have progressed in the last few elections and where Republican women might be headed in 2020.
What are the long-term trends?
According to CAWP’s historical data, the number of Republican women candidates has risen over the last 30 years, although not at the same rate as Democratic women. The number of Democratic women running for office has consistently been higher than that of Republican women. In fact, 2010, a particularly strong year for Republicans, was the only year in which the party gap in women candidates nearly closed. However, after 2010, Republican women candidacies once again dipped before increasingly modestly in 2018.
When we take a look at the number of women actually elected to House, we see that there is even more stagnation in actual representation by Republican women. The number of Republican women in the House is at the lowest it’s been since the early 1990s, at the same time that the number of Democratic women in the House is at an all-time high. This is consistent with a larger trend- the number of Democratic women has been climbing steadily with a few exceptions, while the number of Republican women has seen few significant gains over the past thirty years.
What happened in 2018?
A record number of women ran for and won office in 2018. However, the lion’s share of this success was enjoyed by Democratic women. The difference in the number of Republican women running in comparison to Democratic women was staggering. The number of filed Democratic candidates was nearly triple the number of Republican candidates.
Not only did more Democratic women run for the House, but they also won at higher rates than Republican women. Only a quarter of all Republican women nominees were successful in their bid for office in comparison to over half of Democratic women. Among non-incumbents only, 21.3% of Democratic women won their general election race, whereas only 2.9% of Republican women were successful in November. Even Republican women incumbents had less success maintaining their seats than incumbent men and Democrats.
What might happen in 2020?
After 2018, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) referred to the results of the mid-term election as a “wake up call.” Motivated by the fact that the vast majority of incoming Republicans were men, Stefanik launched her political action committee, E-PAC, to recruit women and help them win. Republican women leaders like Stefanik are clearly hoping to shift the imbalance in the U.S. House. Looking at the numbers of filed and likely women candidates for the U.S. House as of March 11th, there is an increase in the number of Republican women running between 2018 and 2020; today’s number is already double the number of total Republican women candidates who filed for the U.S. House in 2016. If the likely candidates on our list end up filing, 2020 will represent the year with the highest number of Republican women running for the House in the 30 years that CAWP has been collecting this data. Based on other CAWP analyses from the start of this year’s congressional primary cycle, the partisan gap in women’s candidacies also appears likely to close slightly this year.
Can we take away any lessons from Super Tuesday?
But this progress for Republican women should be considered with some caveats. First, the non-majority party (in 2020, Republicans in the House) is likely to see more candidates run for office to oppose incumbents. We saw this contribute to Democratic women’s candidacies in 2018 and this helps to explain the high number of Republican women challengers running in 2020. Although there has been an uptick in the number of democratic primary challengers, potential candidates are generally less likely to challenge an incumbent in the primary. Second, we don’t know how these Republican women candidates will fare well in their primaries, especially in light of past evidence that Republican women have struggled at this stage.
An early test of the latter consideration came in the first congressional primaries of the 2020 election season. On Super Tuesday (March 3, 2020), congressional primaries were held in Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas. Given that many races in California are too close to call, I will restrict the present analyses to the other Super Tuesday states. Out of the 37 non-incumbent Republican women who ran for the U.S. House on Super Tuesday, 29.7% either won their race or advanced to a runoff election. In comparison, 58.5% of the 41 Democratic non-incumbents advanced to the general election or runoff. More specifically, Democratic women fared better in open seat primaries, with 50% of candidates either winning their primary or advancing to a runoff in comparison to only 19% of Republican women.
Beyond basic win rate calculations, we should consider the likelihood of gains for Republican women who have advanced as general election nominees. Out of the 5 non-incumbent Republican women who won on Super Tuesday (excluding California), 3 will be running in districts rated as “Solid Democrat” by the Cook Political Report, 1 in a “Lean Democratic” district, and 1 in a “Toss Up Republican” district. Eleven of the 16 Democratic non-incumbent nominees selected on Super Tuesday face similarly challenging conditions. running in “Solid Republican” districts, and 2 more are nominees in “Lean” or “Likely” Republican districts. However, 3 Democratic nominees are running in “Likely” or “Lean” Democratic districts, indicating they are more likely than others to win in November.
Looking beyond the states in which primaries have already taken place (Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi) and instead at total filed women candidates in states with upcoming primaries where the filing deadline has already passed (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia), 21 Republican women are running as potential general election challengers and 18 (86%) of them are running in districts that the Cook Political Report categorizes as either “Solid Democrat” or “Likely Democrat.” The other 3 are running in either “Lean Democrat” or “Toss Up Democrat” districts. There are also 2 non-incumbent women challenging incumbents of their own party in the primary in “Solid Republican” districts. In most cases, it is very difficult for a candidate to beat an incumbent of their own party in a primary election. Of the 7 Republican women running for 3 different open seat contests, only 1 (14%) is running in a district (IL-15) that is rated as “Solid Republican” by Cook. Looking at the Cook Ratings by district level is also illuminating. In the 20 districts in which there are challengers or open seat candidates, only 1 is rated as “Solid Republican” and 1 “Lean Republican.” This suggests that even if Republican women are extremely successful in their primary bids, gains are still likely to be small.
In terms of Democratic women candidates, 25 of the 30 (83%) women running as potential challengers are running in districts that the Cook Political Report categorizes as “Solid Republican.” Three challengers are running in “Lean Republican” districts and two in “Toss Up Republican” districts. Fifteen Democratic women are challenging incumbents of their own party in the primary. Of the 13 Democratic women running for 4 different open seat contests, 9 (69%) are running for 2 seats that are rated as “Solid Democrat.” One open seat candidate is running in a “Solid Republican” district and 3 are running in a “Lean Republican” district. It is also important to highlight the sheer number of filed Democratic women incumbents (11) verses Republican women incumbents (2). In sum, Republican and Democratic challengers face similarly difficult electoral contexts, although Democratic women seem better poised for general election success if they advance as nominees in open seat contests.
So yes, the most current 2020 data reveals a notable increase in Republican women candidates for the U.S. House. As far as the motivation for these candidates or the impetus for the increase, that is difficult to discern. Potential explanations are that this could be a response to the success of Democratic women in 2018, a product of the organizing efforts of organizers like incumbent Republican Elise Stefanik, or recruitment efforts by the party. An initial peek at the results from Super Tuesday reveals that Republican women were not particularly successful in their primary bids, at least compared to Democratic women. Furthermore, a deep dive into the political landscape where Republican women are running reveals the additional hurdle of generally unfavorable electoral context in the general election. As far as 2020 being “the year of the Republican women,” the early data casts doubt on that.