More Republican women are running for office than ever, but how are they running?

 

A record number of Republican women are running for the U.S. House this year. More than 200 Republican women candidates have already filed, compared to the previous high of 133. And with many primary contests left to be decided, 48 women are Republican nominees for the U.S. House and another seven women are in run-off contests for Republican House nominations.

These numbers are notable on their own, but they do not alone tell the whole story of Republican women’s political candidacies in election 2020. The story of Republican women candidates in election 2020 is not only about if they run and win, but also about how they run and win.

In my book Navigating Gendered Terrain, I evaluate how men and women candidates engage gender on the campaign trail, in addition to asking those who make strategic decisions (candidates and campaign practitioners) about their perceptions of and approaches to gender dynamics in U.S. campaigns. My analysis – in line with other research – illuminates the importance of evaluating how candidates run for office, as well as challenging any singular notions of “running as a woman.” Partisanship is among the most important considerations in analyzing candidate presentation, priorities, and messaging, including the specific ways in which gender shapes how they make the case to voters.

It is too early to conduct a systemic analysis of how women are running in 2020, but a review of Republican women winners – and those best situated to win U.S. House seats in November – provides some insights into both commonalities and diversity in how Republican women are navigating gender and party in candidate presentation this year. As of this June 22nd, 53 Republican women House candidates have advanced either to a primary run-off or general election, including 4 incumbent Republican women House members. Of the 49 non-incumbent women winners, 16 are running in districts that either favor their party or are – at least at this point – deemed competitive in November. Those women are the focus of my analysis.

Meeting Masculine Expectations

The research on gender and campaign strategy has evidenced the dual demands that women candidates face to meet stereotypical expectations of both candidacy, which continue to align most often with men and masculinity, and their gender – which assume alignment with norms of femininity. Both Republican and Democratic women navigate these conflicting expectations, albeit with partisan differences also at play. For Republican women, the alignment of their party with notions of toughness and “law and order” might lead voters to perceive them as more likely than their liberal counterparts to meet these stereotypically masculine expectations.

But Republican women candidates this year are not relying on this party cue to assure voters that they are tough enough for the job. More than a third of the 16 Republican women evaluated here have presented themselves as “fighters,” especially “conservative fighters,” with even more emphasizing their resilience and toughness. State Senator Victoria Spartz, the Republican nominee in Indiana’s 5th congressional district, is described by a fellow senator in a May 2020 advertisement titled “Relentless” as “the Iron Lady of the Indiana State Senate,” adding, “She's not afraid to tackle tough issues.” Other women have used images demonstrating their physical strength as corollaries for their drive to be public leaders. For example, Genevieve Collins, the Republican nominee in Texas’ 32nd congressional district, launched her campaign with an ad titled “Fighter” in which she is described as “tough,” “driven,” and “relentless” while running on a treadmill, doing strength exercises, and sparring with boxing gloves. That symbolism was also used in an ad for Democratic Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS) in 2018 to communicate she would be a “fighter for progress.”

The biography for former Representative Karen Handel (R), who will again challenge Representative Lucy McBath (D) in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, begins, “Karen is called scrappy, determined, and resilient.” Lisa Scheller, the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, is shown cycling uphill in her introductory campaign video, narrating, “I’ve climbed a few hills,” and detailing the obstacles – including opioid addiction – that she has overcome in her life. In emphasizing resilience, women candidates can communicate toughness in ways that are less tied to masculinity and men.

But conservative candidates have also frequently used gun imagery to communicate both toughness and their commitment to Second Amendment rights. Of the 16 Republican women candidates analyzed for this piece, six are shown shooting or holding guns in their campaign materials and ten make explicit statements about their commitment to uphold the right to bear arms. In one ad, Marjorie Greene, who has recently advanced to the runoff as the highest vote-getter in the Republican primary in Georgia’s 14th congressional district, shoots a high-powered gun off of the back of a Humvee at targets that symbolize gun control, the green new deal, and socialism. In another web video, she touts that she is 100% pro-gun, explains that she carries a gun “every single day,” and touts her membership in The DC Project – an all-women’s gun rights group. Most recently, she posted a video message to Antifa in which she brandishes a loaded gun and warns, “Stay the hell out of Northwest Georgia.” Lynda Bennett, who has advanced to a runoff in North Carolina’s 11th congressional district, also posted a web video showing her engaged in target practice, and Yvette Herrell, the Republican nominee in a rematch in New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district, describes the “God-given” right to bear arms in an ad where she is shown shooting at a gun range.

The symbolism of guns is both ideological and gendered, often used to convey conservative bona fides as well as toughness via a tool of brute force. Their centrality in conservative candidate presentation is not new and their use often reinforces traditional notions of masculinity as the credential by which candidacy should be won. We saw this most recently in ads from men like Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) and women like Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) in the 2018 election. And even in the few examples in recent history where Democratic candidates were shown with guns in campaign materials, they did so to communicate stereotypical masculinity and/or question the masculine credentials of their opponent (e.g. see Alison Lundergan Grimes’ 2014 ad against Senator Mitch McConnell).

Highlighting Distinctly Gendered Experience

There is no universal way to run for office as a woman, and this year’s Republican women candidates illustrate the diversity with which women both navigate gender and define womanhood on the campaign trail. For example, Genevieve Collins describes shooting a gun as part of what it means to be a “Texas Woman,” challenging the idea that guns only denote masculinity. In an ad titled “Texas Woman,” she explains that being a Texas woman “means you know how to shoot, clean, and eat your kill one day, then throw on your dress and work a board room the next.” Collins is one of at least six Republican women candidates of the 16 analyzed here – including Yvette Herrell (NM), Marjorie Greene (GA), Lynda Bennett (NC), Renee Swann (SC), and Lisa Scheller (PA) – that touts her success as a businesswoman as key to her credentials for political office. In addition to emphasizing their business acumen and capacity for success, some of these women point more explicitly to being trailblazers for women in otherwise male-dominated fields – a role they would continue in a still-male-dominated U.S. Congress. 

Being a trailblazer is central to State Representative Nancy Mace’s image in her bid as the Republican nominee in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district. In both her biography and campaign videos, Mace reminds voters that she was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets in 1999. She authored a book about her experience in 2001 titled The Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel, again reinforcing her ability to successfully navigate what has otherwise been a man’s world. Two other Republican women nominees from California – Michelle Steel and Young Kim – tout their own trailblazing along intersectional lines, both noting their successes as Korean-American Republican women in American politics.

In these examples, Republican women candidates disrupt stereotypical expectations that they – as women – are ill-suited for political office. In fact, they tout distinctly gendered experiences as trailblazing women to prove their capacity to both make it to and lead in the U.S. Congress. But women candidates who disrupt gender expectations have long risked some backlash from voters who demand that they meet both the stereotypically masculine demands of candidacy and stereotypically feminine expectations of their sex. Republican voters hold more traditional gender role expectations that might create particular hurdles for Republican women confronting this double bind. One Republican consultant explained to me, for example, that stay-at-home mothers are one of the most reliable Republican voting groups, and that they are often most skeptical of women’s ability to balance office-holding with family responsibilities; “If they [stay at home], the automatic question is ‘If this is my life experience, why isn’t it your life experience?’.” Therefore, Republican women candidates navigate uniquely gendered terrain whereby the accepted gender roles of some of their primary constituents might conflict with the professional roles they are seeking.

This – tied more broadly with ideological and religious beliefs about family values among conservatives – might help to explain both how and why the Republican women candidates I analyzed this year talk about being mothers. Eleven of the 16 Republican women candidates I analyzed have children, a fact all of them mention in some way in their campaign materials. But most go beyond mere mention of their children. For example, State Representative Ashley Hinson, the Republican nominee in Iowa’s 1st congressional district, leads with this campaign motto: “Proven Leader. Proud Mom.” Her website features photos of her with her two school-aged sons, whom she describes as motivation for her to “fight for a better community and stronger economy for all Iowa families.” Mary Miller, the Republican nominee in Illinois' 15th congressional district, has a campaign slogan of "Faith, Family, and Freedom" and introduces herself to voters as mother of seven children. Mayor Beth Van Duyne, Republican nominee in Texas’ 24th congressional district, uses three words to characterize herself to voters: Christian, conservative, and mother. She goes on to describe herself as “a single, working-mother” who wants her two children to “be able to grow up safe and proud of our country.” Likewise, Marjorie Greene presents herself as a conservative wife and mother and concludes her biography by noting, “Marjorie believes the best part of her life is being a mother and spending time with her family.” Finally, Renee Swann touts her accomplishments as a mother as among those that should be valued in her bid for office. Her campaign materials present her as a woman who has “raised four men to be great husbands, fathers, and servants of their communities.”

These various approaches toward integrating motherhood into Republican women’s cases for candidacy both assure voters that they have been successful in fulfilling a traditional gender role while simultaneously adding motherhood – and the skills and passion it brings – as another credential that should be valued in its translation into political officeholding. This shift from motherhood as a potential electoral hurdle to an electoral asset is something that has occurred over time and across party lines, with the most prominent and progressive examples to date coming from Democratic mothers who ran in 2018. The number of Republican women candidates running with – and celebrating – young children in 2020 might demonstrate that shift is not distinct to Democrats, even if the ways in which this role is discussed might differ across party lines.

Proving Conservative Bona Fides

Previous research demonstrates how gender cues of expected liberalism might hurt Republican women running for office. For women running in Republican primaries, who have been shown to have a harder time making through to nomination, this can put more pressure on them than on their male opponents to prove their conservative bona fides. The Republican women running in 2020 are no exception. In addition to touting their support for the Second Amendment, most Republican women candidates I analyzed made clear that they were also pro-life, pro-religion, and pro-Trump.

Multiple Republican women have emphasized their Christian values as informing their political priorities. Kathaleen Wall, who advanced to the runoff election for the Republican nomination in Texas’ 22nd congressional district, explains in a campaign advertisement, “I’m running for Congress to continue my life’s mission of serving God.” Yvette Herrell’s campaign home page leads with “Pro-God,” followed by “Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Business” and “Pro-Energy.” In her introductory advertisement, she says, “I'm a Christian conservative and I'm a Trump conservative,” quickly affirming some key credentials desired by many Republican primary voters this year.

Vocal and stated support for President Donald Trump is evident among most of the Republican women who have advanced in primary contests thus far, demonstrating the importance for candidates – men and women alike – to align with the de facto head of party. Some align especially strongly with President Trump, such as Lynda Bennett, whose first advertisement was titled “Always Trumper.” Likewise, Yvette Herrell emphasizes that she has supported Donald Trump “from day one” and will continue to support his agenda as a member of Congress. Among the “17 Things I Wholeheartedly Believe” on Renee Swann’s campaign website is this: "President Trump is doing a phenomenal job for the American people.”

Only two of the Republican women candidates who have advanced thus far in the 2020 cycle do not have any obvious references to their support for President Trump in their campaign materials: Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both running in competitive contests in California. In fact, the only mentions of Donald Trump on Kim’s Twitter account are three tweets deriding him for his comments in the Access Hollywood tape released in 2016, his questioning of the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and – just this weekend – his use of racist language is characterizing the coronavirus. Both Steel and Kim’s congressional contests are currently rated as “Lean Democratic” by Cook Political Report, which might help to explain their distancing from President Trump.

Finally, proving conservative bona fides in the 2020 election – for men and women alike – means standing against socialism. Many Republican women candidates are explicit in their anti-socialist rhetoric in their campaign materials, with some like Marjorie Greene making “Save America. Stop Socialism” the primary tagline of her campaign. State Senator Victoria Spartz has doubled down on her anti-socialist credentials by talking about her experience growing up in “socialist-controlled Ukraine” where “she experienced firsthand the dark side of socialism.” Common in the attacks on Democrats’ socialism are direct attacks on individual Democrats – most notably freshman Democratic women of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Of the 16 Republican women’s campaigns I analyzed, nine used images of and/or references to these women to describe what they stood against (another Republican woman candidate who lost her primary went so far as to suggest she would create a “conservative squad” of her own to oppose these progressive women in Congress). Renee Swann calls them “socialists,” “extremists,” and “Trump-haters” in a February campaign ad and Karen Handel interestingly focuses on these women – instead of the freshman Democratic woman she is running against – as symbols of what is wrong in Washington, D.C. 

The gendered and racialized dynamics at play in these attacks are important to note. Republican candidates’ – men and women alike – explicit targeting of these freshman women of color as “extreme” or “threats” is a tactic not only effective due to their ideological positions; as women representing communities – racial and ethnic, religious (Tlaib and Omar are the first Muslim women in Congress), and even generational – that have been marginalized from power and characterized as at the least unfit and at the worst dangerous, they are being used as symbols of the most direct challenge to the white, male status quo. An added layer of nuance is evident when Republican women evoke these images and messages. In doing so – whether intentionally or not – they create an explicit contrast between groups of women, characterizing themselves as the right kind of women for political leadership and the “squad” as the wrong kind of women to serve in Congress.

Trends to Watch

This review of a selection of Republican women candidates in 2020 – those who have already advanced in U.S. House contests and are among the most competitive in November – offers some early insights into how Republican women are running this year. They are emphasizing toughness and resilience, business and conservative bona fides, and – for most – their alignment with and support for President Trump. Consistent with the Republican Party’s derision of “identity politics,” they are less likely than Democratic women were in 2018 to emphasize the need for greater representation of women in office as part of their case for candidacy, but they do tout gender difference by characterizing themselves as trailblazers and mothers.

In addition to crunching the numbers and tracking the horse race, analyzing the influence of gender in both campaign strategy and candidate evaluation is necessary to tell the full story of election 2020. This is just a start. 

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.  She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).