Inside the GOP's two-year fight to elect more women, and why it finally paid off in 2020

  • After Democrats helped drive a record number of female lawmakers to Capitol Hill in 2018, Republican women swung into action and won big in the 2020 elections.
  • At least 18 new Republican women will head to Congress in January, growing their numbers from 22 to at least 36 next year.
  • This year's historic win for GOP women came in part due to the efforts of female Republican operatives who decided to buck party tradition and strike out on their own, identifying promising candidates early in the cycle and fielding requests from women who wanted to run.
  • Republican women such as New York Rep. Elise Stefanik put a great deal of effort into helping female candidates during primaries, despite initial pushback from party leadership.
  • "I think probably most of the party realizes that perhaps our approach was more successful than theirs," said former GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock, who sits on the boards of organizations that work to elect Republican women.
  • At least two women who have expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory will join the Republican ranks, raising questions about how leadership will handle them.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Two years ago, Republican Young Kim arrived in Washington for her freshman orientation, a time-honored tradition where newly elected members of Congress come to Capitol Hill to learn all the rules and perks of being a lawmaker. 

There was one catch, however: Kim's close Southern California race hadn't been called, but she went to Washington just in case. By the time all the votes were tallied, she'd lost. 

This year, Kim returned to Washington for orientation again. She was the undisputed victor this time, and one of the many new Republican women who won their congressional races across the country.

The success for Republican women in the 2020 election cycle comes two years after they watched Democrats usher in a historically diverse class, while the GOP could show very little progress on that front.

This time around, Republican women will grow their numbers to at least 36 seats in both the House and the Senate, up from 22 in the 116th session. Come January, Congress will have 142 women, its highest number ever — the vast majority of them Democrats.

While down-ballot Republicans generally performed well this year, their gains in the House are largely due to a rogue effort by Republican women to pull more female candidates into the primary process and back successful contenders.

"It's very exciting, the outcome," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who just fended off a tough challenge from Democrat Sara Gideon to keep her seat. "We've needed to reach out to women to run for office as Republicans. I give Elise Stefanik in the House a great deal of credit for organizing that effort and it was extremely successful."

The incoming winners include California's Michelle Steel, who along with Kim and Democrat Marilyn Strickland will be one of the first Korean American women elected to Congress; Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who flipped seats for the GOP; and Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2018 but tried again in this cycle.

Included in this large House cohort of GOP women are at least two politicians who have openly supported the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents the FBI has labeled a terror threat. Republican leadership seems prepared to embrace them as it pursues a House majority by any means necessary.

'I didn't ask for permission'

Rep. Elise Stefanik during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in January 2020.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 2018, the story was the opposite. Democrats elected 35 new women to the House while Republicans elevated just one, Carol Miller of West Virginia. The imbalance was a wake-up call for the party.

"What I remember most vividly is at the start of a new Congress, like right now, the new members come to town and each of the caucuses meet and they introduce all the new members," Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and ally of President Donald Trump, told Insider. "And in the Republican case, they stand up at the front of the room. And it was just so stark that there was only one female new member, Carol Miller. And it was very clear to me that this is not reflective of reality."

This year's reversal came from Republican women who decided to buck party tradition and strike out on their own, identifying promising candidates early in the cycle and fielding requests from women who wanted to run.

Shortly after the 2018 midterms, Stefanik focused her political action committee, E-PAC on supporting GOP women in their primaries. The move raised eyebrows at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where its Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer criticized Stefanik's decision.

"If that's what Elise wants to do, then that's her call, her right," Emmer told Roll Call. "But I think that's a mistake."

He added that the NRCC would have a "women's program" but that the committee's backing of a candidate "shouldn't be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion."

"NEWSFLASH," Stefanik tweeted, in response to Emmer's criticism, adding four siren emojis. "I didn't ask for permission."

 

"The NRCC has a policy of not playing in primaries and that's the right policy for the committee," Stefanik told Insider. "I specifically wanted to work outside that policy." 

Emmer did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

Stefanik modeled her efforts on the NRCC's Young Guns program, which supports House candidates who meet certain metrics for fundraising, spending, and other goals. Candidates who sought her support needed to hew to similar criteria, Stefanik said.

E-PAC raised nearly a million dollars and spent $800,613 in this election cycle, according to the most recently available public records. Stefanik's PAC also coordinated with other organizations dedicated to electing Republican women, including Winning for Women and VIEW PAC.

More candidates = more congresswomen

Young Kim during her first, unsuccessful run for Congress in 2018. She ran for the seat again in 2020 and won.Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

It also helped that Republicans saw an increase in interest from female candidates this year, said Barbara Comstock, a former Virginia congresswoman who lost her seat in 2018 to Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton.

This cycle, "a lot of our Republican women said, 'You know what, I'm not going to wait to be asked to the prom. I'm going to do this myself,'" said Comstock, who sits on the board of Winning for Women. "It wasn't like we had to go out and find them, a lot of them stepped up themselves and said, 'I want to do this.'"

Years of research have shown that the gender gap in American politics exists not because women are less likely to win elections, or voters are biased against them at the ballot box, but because not enough women run for elections. Women have become more engaged since the 2016 election, and have since seen their numbers in elected positions increase.  

A record 227 Republican women filed to run for the House in 2020, up from just 120 in 2018. Of those, 94 became their party's nominee for their respective House seat. A total of 23 Republican women filed to run for Senate, one more than in 2018.

"The record number of women running for both parties in 2020 shows that conservative women may be mobilized to engage in politics at higher rates this election cycle as well, perhaps in part to counterbalance the narrative that women in politics largely hail from the political left," Melissa Deckman, chair of the politics department at Washington College, told the Center for American Women in Politics in October.

For years, Democrats have put a lot of effort and money into recruiting, training, and supporting women to run for office. They have pushed to elect more female, Black, Latino, and other diverse candidates. And with the help of groups such as EMILY's List, Latino Victory Fund, and Collective PAC, Democrats have so far had far more diversity in their ranks than Republicans.

Republicans have tried, but not at the same scale or with the same support before the 2020 election cycle.

In addition to getting more Republican women to run, GOP operatives worked to support them once they announced their campaigns. Comstock and her compatriots promoted their preferred candidates to other PACs and donors, helping win wider backing.

"We would talk to other groups and say, 'Hey, we're supporting this one. She's great. Here's why you should support her too'," Comstock told Insider last week.

She credited Julie Conway of VIEW PAC, a Republican strategist who has worked for years to boost the number of Republican women in office, with identifying candidates early and coordinating fundraisers over Zoom during the pandemic.

While Trump lost the presidential election, Republicans fared well in the down-ballot races where the women competed, shrinking Democrats' House majority and clinging to nearly all of their vulnerable Senate seats. 

Several of the incoming Republican female lawmakers knocked out incumbent Democratic women who had made up 2018's historic class of Democrats.

"It's always sad when I see my colleagues lose their seat, it truly is," Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who just won re-election, told Insider. "I'm encouraged that Republicans have found more women to run, and I think quite frankly this is an entirely different type of election…but I am sad about anyone that we lost on our side."

The Q Question

Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene arrives for new member orientation in Washington on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Not every Republican woman who won her election in this cycle had the support of organizations like VIEW PAC and Winning for Women.

Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia is arguably the most controversial incoming member of the House this year, due to her past support of the QAnon conspiracy theory.  Adherents follow the cryptic postings of a user named "Q" and claim that the Democratic elite run a secret ring of cannibalistic pedophiles. QAnon believers think Trump will purge these Democrats en masse in an event called "The Storm."

Greene once called Q a "patriot." She also previously echoed 9/11 conspiracy theories and has a history of making racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic statements. After she defeated her Republican primary opponent neurosurgeon John Cowan — guaranteeing her move to Congress — Republican leaders signaled they were ready to overlook her controversies and welcome her to the caucus without censure. Greene has since tried to distance herself from QAnon, but she has not yet publicly disavowed it.

Stefanik was not ready to condemn Greene when asked about how the Republican Party should approach her. 

"I am a big believer…that the people that send their representatives to Washington, they make those decisions, and I respect the choice of people in these districts," Stefanik said.

"Marjorie Taylor Greene is a member of the United States Congress; she will be treated as such," Stefanik added. "And, you know, I think she's going to have an opportunity to prove herself to her district as a legislator."

Stefanik pointed out that she had voted in support of a House resolution that condemned QAnon. Still, the New York lawmaker's statements to Insider echo those made by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Whip Steve Scalise, who are on board with embracing and treating Greene as a regular member of the caucus.

Republicans also elected Lauren Boebert to the House from Colorado. Boebert told the New York Times she wasn't a QAnon follower. But in May, she had told a web show associated with the conspiracy that "Everything I've heard of Q — I hope this is real."

Unlike Stefanik and House GOP leaders, Comstock was not so forgiving of the reality that Republicans are allowing a potential conspiracy theorist into their ranks. 

"We did not support Marjorie," Comstock said of her organization's efforts. "I think she's had problems already with men and women in the caucus…we all get our problem children."

Comstock described the decisions by some Republicans including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to back Greene as "very misguided," and "bad judgment."

Lessons learned

Congresswoman-elect Nicole Malliotakis defeated a Democrat, Max Rose, to become the lone Republican representing New York City.Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Republican women who fought to get more female lawmakers into Congress believe they've taught the party a valuable lesson and they're seizing the moment.

After the election, a pair of Republican pollsters circulated a memo to others in the GOP arguing that "Republicans should use this moment and this momentum to further strengthen their efforts to recruit, train, and empower Republican female candidates."

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told Insider that the 2020 results proved Republicans needed to do more for "recruiting women. And encouraging them."

As Republicans turn their attention to the 2022 midterms, Comstock and others who backed women candidates are hopeful that the party —and its men — are listening and will be more supportive as the GOP tries to snatch control of the House from the Democrats. 

"I think probably most of the party realizes that perhaps our approach was more successful than theirs," Comstock said.

Kimberly Leonard contributed to this report.

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