Kristen O'Shea is a 28-year-old married woman who is planning to have children sometime in the foreseeable future. She’s also running for the Kansas Senate, where she’d serve a four-year term if elected. Given the timeframe, she asked some sitting senators about the chamber’s maternity leave policies.
“The men in the room laughed because they had never heard the question,” she recalls. “Probably not as many people in the room are thinking about those kinds of needs.”
The average state legislator is still a straight white man in his mid-50s. O'Shea is part of a cohort of candidates who can help reshape the demographics of legislatures. This year’s nominees are trending younger, with more of them belonging to ethnic and racial minorities or identifying as LGBTQ.
EMILY’s List, a political action committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, has endorsed a record 700 legislative candidates, 30 percent of whom are women of color. The total number of women candidates at this point is just about equal to 2018, which was a record. Many women have been motivated to become more active in politics, including running for office, by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. An eye-popping 60,000 women have contacted EMILY’s List about running for office since that election, according to Stephanie Schriock, the PAC’s president, although not all of them ultimately took the plunge.
Republican Kristen O'Shea is a 28-year-old running for the Kansas Senate for the first time.
But this time around, more women, like O'Shea, are running as Republicans. “You’ve had some caucuses that were extremely aggressive about making sure they had good, quality women running on the ticket,” says Edith Jorge-Tuñón, political director of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Republicans currently account for just 31 percent of the roughly 2,150 women serving in legislatures. This year, however, the number of Republican women running has increased by 8 percent, while the number of Democratic women candidates is down 4 percent.
The GOP shed some of the relatively few women politicians it had back in 2018, with just 13 Republican women left in the U.S. House. “It was a bad year for Republican women,” says Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “There was a decline of Republican women at nearly all levels of office,”
Democrats have long had groups supporting women candidates, including EMILY’s List and Emerge America, but Republicans have been slower to recruit and support women. To address what she called a “crisis level” in terms of the declining number of GOP women in Congress, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik started a PAC last year as an answer to EMILY’s List.
This year, 227 Republican women ran for Congress — shattering the old record of 130 — with 94 of them winning nominations. “When you get to the congressional level, especially in the House, it is Republican women who are responsible for nearly all the increase in women candidacies,” Dittmar says.
At the state level, the RSLC launched an initiative known as “Right Women, Right Now” back in 2012. “Women typically have to be asked more than once,” says Jorge-Tuñón. “As a whole, men are a lot quicker to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll go for it.’”
Recognizing that successful role models represent one of the best recruiting tools, the RSLC is hoping that the election of more Republican women will in turn prompt more women to consider running down the road. O'Shea notes that the Kansas Senate is 65 percent male — but its president, Susan Wagle, happens to be a woman.
That’s not why O'Shea decided to run. She’s a small business owner angered by COVID-19 closures who decided to file for office at the last minute. But it didn’t hurt.
“We are seeing an increase of Republican women running,” Schriock says. “This will be shocking coming from the president of EMILY’s List, but I think this is a good thing. I think more women across the board need to run for office.”
Changing the Profile
In 2018, Democrats flipped a dozen seats in the Texas House. They’re likely to gain more ground this year, with an outside chance of flipping the chamber. In order to protect the party’s majority, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott pushed for Asian, Black and Hispanic candidates to better reflect both the state and individual districts.
“They’ve recruited good, diverse candidates for diverse districts,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. “In Texas, from the Republican Party’s perspective, a Latina is their best candidate — someone who can hold their base but also reach into Latinos and women who tend to vote for Democrats.”
Luisa del Rosal is an immigrant from Mexico running for a swing seat in Dallas, looking to unseat John Turner, a Democrat elected two years ago. She earned the endorsement of the Dallas Morning News, which argued that her candidacy offers a chance for the GOP to embrace immigrants and people of color.
“Even though I’m a committed Republican, people like me are not represented,” says del Rosal, who is making her first run for office. “In 2018, I realized that Republican candidates didn’t look like me. We were leaving this gap open.”
June Cutter also had representation in mind while making her decision to run. She’s seeking a California Assembly seat that’s been held since 2012 by Brian Maienschein. He won re-election as a Republican two years ago, defeating a Democratic woman named Sunday Gover by 607 votes, out of nearly 200,000 cast.
Republican June Cutter is seeking a California Assembly seat. (Jarrod Valliere, The San Diego Tribune)
Maienschein switched to the Democratic Party a month into his current term. “I didn’t think it was right for him to switch parties right after taking all that Republican time and treasure,” Cutter says.
She decided that the San Diego-area district, although trending blue, might elect a Republican again and had clearly shown it was ready to vote for a woman. Cutter had chaired the California Women’s Leadership Association PAC, which supports fiscally conservative women, yet still hoped to find someone else to run.
It turned out, the bench was empty, so Cutter went for it. “I’ve never thought I would run for office,” she says.
Changing Demographics of Democratic Women
More women are still running as Democrats than as Republicans. As in past election cycles, there’s also a clear gender gap in terms of party support.
An IBD/TIPP poll of the presidential race released this week showed Trump barely winning men, 47 to 46 percent, but losing women by a 17-point margin against Democrat Joe Biden. An Economist/YouGov poll showed Biden winning men by four points but carrying women by 14 points.
"Women with conservative values don't fit the narrative," Cutter says. "That part has been challenging."
Maienschein has been touting his support of women’s reproductive rights, but Cutter argues it’s reductionist to look at the concerns of women solely through that lens. “I respond that all issues are women’s issues,” she says. “Everything we talk about impacts women just as much as it impacts men.”
Cutter may have a tough time in a district where Democratic registration is growing. In California primaries, all candidates appear on the same ballot, regardless of party. In March, Maienschein outpolled her by 15 points.
In every contested election, someone has to lose, but women can’t be winners if they don’t run in the first place. That’s an obvious fact that’s gained increased attention from Republicans.
“People can see me in my conservative values or in all the demographics that appeal to a wide variety of voters,” del Rosal says. “I always tell people, I’m not the Republican Party of the future, I’m the party of the present.”