Republican Women Watch Their Numbers Decline in State Legislatures

2018 was a bad year for GOP female candidates. The ones that did win elections don't hold as much power as Democratic women.
by | May 28, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik launched a PAC this year aimed at getting more Republican women elected to Congress. (AP/Michael Brochstein)

SPEED READ:

  • The number of Republican women in state legislatures declined after the 2018 midterms.
  • Women make up a larger share of Republicans in Democratic-controlled legislatures than GOP-led legislatures.
  • Republicans are less likely to recognize the underrepresentation of women in politics and to help them run for office.
 

For many, 2018 was the “Year of the Woman.” But the wave of women winning elections didn't extend to Republicans running for state office.

Though women's representation in state legislatures increased from about 25 percent to 29 percent after the 2018 midterms, Republican women saw their representation decline from nearly 10 percent to 9 percent. Before the midterms, 705 state legislators were Republican women; after, only 662.

Though not a significant decline, new data illuminates a more complicated challenge for female Republicans: They not only have a harder time winning legislative races, they may be even less likely to win in places where their party holds control of the legislature.

According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), women make up 20.7 percent of Republicans in Democratic-led legislatures but only 16 percent of Republicans in states where the GOP is the majority. 

By contrast, women make up 43.1 percent of Democrats in legislatures where they have control and 40.6 percent of Democrats in legislatures where they're in the minority.

“This means Republican women hold less power in the state legislatures where they have the greatest potential to make policy change,” says Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University, who compiled these figures.

The lowest rates of Republican women in GOP legislatures were in Alabama (6.7 percent of GOP seats), Utah (11 percent) and Virginia (11.1 percent).

In a political environment focused on motivating more women to run for office, Dittmar’s findings raise the question of electability: Are Republicans willing to vote for women over men?

The GOP is hesitant to recognize gender disparities in politics. According to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, only 33 percent of Republican-leaning respondents believe women are underrepresented in high political offices, compared to 79 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents. Those numbers drop slightly for both groups when asked whether gender discrimination is a "major reason" for women’s underrepresentation in high political offices.

"[Republican] party leadership, particularly men, have been somewhat reluctant to identify this as a problem in part because they deride what they call 'identity politics,'" says Dittmar. “They say, 'We just elect the best people regardless of gender or race or any other demographic.'"

Historically, both Republicans and Democrats have struggled with gender representation, says Rosalyn Cooperman, professor at University of Mary Washington who focuses on women and politics. But while many groups have made intentional efforts to support Democratic female candidates, few groups are specifically dedicated to recruiting and supporting GOP women. The ones that do tend to focus on congressional candidates.

This affects one thing that's crucial for any potential candidate: fundraising.

Cooperman and professor Melody Crowder-Meyer of Davidson College did a survey on party donor contributions. Their research found that 72 percent of Republican donors "never heard of" five conservative women PACs, but only 7 percent of Democrats said the same about liberal women PACs. And while 2 percent of Republican donors said they actively support the group of conservative women PACs, 36 percent of Democratic donors support liberal women PACs.

Political scientists say primary races present the largest hurdles for female GOP candidates.

When choosing between a man and a woman in a primary, or any other election where both candidates are largely unknown, Democrats are more likely to choose a woman under the assumption that she is more liberal, says Crowder-Meyer. But Republicans are more likely to choose a man based on the assumption that a woman will be more moderate.

“Part of why [this] is so troubling is that I think it’s deep-rooted and thus likely to last unless the prominent policy demanders in the party suddenly changed -- which would be super unexpected and unlikely,” says Crowder-Meyer.

Conversations within the Republican party about women’s representation are beginning to happen at the national level. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik has spoken out about the issue and launched a PAC this year aimed at getting more Republican women elected to Congress.

If Republicans want to balance their gender representation in the long term, though, Cooperman says that push also needs to happen in state legislatures -- and given the bigger number of statehouse seats, these will be the most promising opportunity to begin filling the gap.