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Meghan Milloy’s mission is to get more Republican women in office. As co-founder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress, she believes that “democracy works better when it represents everyone,” and to her that means gender parity in both parties.
But while it’s her job to recruit, train and fundraise for female Republican candidates, she finds herself telling many women not to run — at least not this year.
“It’s a Catch-22 for us,” she explains. “A lot of good moderate Republican women who want to run for office, our advice is ‘You’re a good candidate, you would probably win in any other year, let’s wait.’”
Female Republican candidates are having a harder time than usual in 2018. With all the talk of the surge in women seeking elected office this year, and all the benefits of being a woman candidate in the Age of Trump, what is less often noted is that nearly all that energy and advantage seems to be on one side of the aisle.
“It’s a tough year to be a Republican woman,” agrees Anne Moses, who founded the nonpartisan group Ignite eight years ago to educate high school and college women to become the next generation of political leaders. “It’s always been hard, but this year all the reasons it’s been tough make it even tougher.”
According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the number of Democratic women running for House seats this year increased 146 percent over 2016 (to 351), while the number of Republican women running for the House increased just 35 percent (to 99); on the other side of the Capitol there are only 14 Republican women running for the Senate compared with 27 Democratic women.
The nonpartisan group VoteRunLead has seen a threefold increase in the number of women completing their candidate training program last year — from just over 3,000 to just under 10,000 — but the proportion of Republicans has shrunk from one in five to one in nine, according to Erin Vilardi, the group’s founder and CEO.
In part this is because there have always been fewer Republican women in high office than Democratic women. Although Republicans are in the majority in Congress, three quarters of the 83 women in the House are Democrats. This is the result of several factors, chief among them the historical tendency of women to identify as Democrats and the more robust recruitment pipeline for Democratic women, all of which are even more pronounced this year than previously. And the reason for that, candidates and strategists say, is the reason for so many other phenomena in politics at the moment — Donald Trump.
“You either run as pro-Trump or anti-Trump,” Vilardi says. “There’s no other dynamic now. Women are expected to have a stand on Trump, on #MeToo, and men aren’t even asked the question. Republican women have a harder time with that question, and the consequences are greater for them whichever their answer.”
Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics, agrees. “The reason it’s particularly challenging for Republican women is there is an expectation put on all women that they will call out and reject some of the more misogynistic behavior and rhetoric that this president has put forth,” she says. “That leaves less room for nuance, saying ‘I’m not with him on this, but I am with him on something else.’ Whether it’s fair or not, voters are not necessarily looking to men to specifically answer on those issues.”
Jenifer Sarver learned that firsthand. She was one of 18 candidates for the Republican nomination in Texas’s 21st Congressional District, a seat that opened when the incumbent retired. Texas has not sent a freshman woman to Congress in 22 years, “meaning an entire generation of young Texans has never seen a woman elected” to that job, so while her gender got her a bit of attention, not all of it was good.
She was regularly asked, “Who are you working for?” at candidate gatherings, and when she answered, “‘I’m the candidate,’ it was a surprise,” she says. The follow-up was often “Oh, what does your husband think of you running; what will you do with the kids if you go to Washington?” she recalls. “I would answer, ‘I’m single, no kids,’ and they would say, ‘Oh, that’s good; this would be a hard job to do with kids.’”
There were times when being a woman helped in the current climate, she says, such as the handful of doors she knocked on to be told, “Oh, you’re a female candidate — I’m only voting for females this year.” But there was at least one memorable and public moment when it hurt. During a candidate forum, one of her male opponents asked if she had voted for Hillary Clinton, and she said that indeed she had. “When it came down to it, I couldn’t support candidate Trump,” she answered. “As a woman, I couldn’t do it.”
There were audible gasps in the room; the Austin-American Statesman’s metro columnist Ken Herman wrote of the moment, “Just then, some of the dead animal heads on the walls turned toward Sarver with looks of shocked disbelief.” In the Texas primary a few weeks later, she came in fifth with 5.6 percent of the vote.
Sarver is careful to say that she did not lose because she is a woman. But she also notes that she could not run as many Democratic candidates are doing, whether directly or obliquely, using the fact that they are women as a reason why they should be elected.
The Republican Party, voters and candidates alike, has long been less accepting of what has become known as “identity politics.” “Democratic women are used to marrying their woman-ness to their reason for seeking office,” says Anne Moses, “in effect saying that there is an inherent good in electing more women, or women have firsthand understanding of certain issues, or lead differently than men, so ‘vote for me.’ Republicans reject that. It’s harder for a Republican woman to stand up and proclaim, ‘I am a Republican woman, and there is merit in having more of us in office.’”
The result, Dittmar says, can sometimes be “verbal gymnastics.” She cites Carly Fiorina’s message during her presidential primary campaign. “It became ‘Don’t just vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman; that’s playing the woman card,’ but at the same time, ‘I’m the best person to compete against Hillary Clinton because I’m a woman.’”
This becomes additionally complicated in an era when many first-time candidates in both parties are in fact running because they are women. “That’s been the surprise gift of this administration,” says Milloy. “Trump winning has empowered so many women who wouldn’t have stepped up and gotten involved. The irony is that as his policies put women back several years, he is also inspiring women to run.”
Republican women and their advisers are handling these intersections, contradictions and complications in varying ways.
Some are simply aligning themselves with the president on policy while projecting a slightly eye-rolling air when it comes to his personal behavior.
“What are Republican women doing about Donald Trump?” asks Missy Shorey, executive director of Maggie’s List, established in 2010 to fund campaigns of conservative women who are running for federal office. “By recognizing that we now have the best tax policy since the ’80s, that we see a booming economy where businesses that we either own or that our families work for are thriving thanks to deregulation, that the military is strengthened rather than gutted … that’s what they’re doing about Donald Trump.
“Do we wish we’ve seen some better behavior?” she continues. “Yes. Do many of us roll our eyes when we see the daily tweets? Absolutely. He is not a perfect candidate, but he certainly beats the alternative, and at the end of the day, we are getting much of what we wanted.”
Others are shape-shifting a bit, in a way that candidates of both parties often do for the primaries. “We have a few women who are very moderate, very much against Trump,” says Milloy, “but in order to compete in their primaries, they need to be a little more to the right than they actually are. If they win, then the hope is they can express their views more freely in the general.”
A few are playing something that looks very much like identity politics, but with a Republican twist. Back in February, for instance, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., briefly reconsidered his decision to leave politics, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., fought back. Corker has been an outspoken critic of Trump and told friends that he might get back into the race because he feared his seat could flip to a Democrat. Blackburn, who proudly aligns herself with the president, is considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in that race, and she sent her staff to call Corker out.
“Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig,” Blackburn’s campaign spokeswoman Andrea Bozek told the Washington Post. “We aren’t worried about these ego-driven, tired old men. Marsha has spent her whole life fighting people who told her she wasn’t good enough, and she will do it again.”
Many others, though, are waiting. “I think this is a year of rebuilding for Republican women,” Vilardi says. Those who go through the VoteRunLead program traditionally craft a five-year plan toward an electoral run, but since 2016, she says, “Democratic women have shortened that timeline to the next election, with 60 percent saying they wanted to run by 2020. Republican women, though, have slowed down” their expected timeline, waiting to see if the landscape shifts.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Larissa Martinez, a co-founder of the Women Influencers Network, yet another of the many groups that are forming to train and fund conservative women candidates. “The enthusiasm and the energy now is very much on the left side. It makes for a very hostile election cycle. I’ve gone to a number of women panels, and the women on the left see right-leaning women as walking contradictions. It’s an unusual time to know how to navigate, so I can understand some Republican women wanting to take a break.”
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