Dressed in a blue flight suit adorned with a US flag and her name, Martha McSally, the US Congresswoman representing this Tucson, Arizona crowd, scanned the airline hangar filled with supporters. Saluting, as the retired Colonel is well accustomed to doing from her 26 years in the US Air Force, McSally pledged to crack a political ceiling with a rallying cry that echoes her entire career.
“It might be the calling of my life to break another barrier. I’m ready for that mission!”
Her mission, this time, is to become Arizona’s first woman US senator. Arizona, which has elected four female Governors and numerous state legislators, has never sent a woman to the US Senate. Her supporters believe McSally has the characteristics to change that.
The Republican congresswoman blasted through barriers in the military as the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and she was the first to command a fighter squadron in combat in US history.
But McSally is a rare bright spot for the GOP when it comes to female participation in this year’s elections. In 2018, a year where unprecedented, historic levels of women are registering to run for office, the Republican Party is seeing unchanged engagement from women. From the grassroots training organizations to the registration rolls of national candidates, the so-called Year of the Woman has largely been only among Democratic women.
“I think we need more women in office for sure,” said McSally. “On the Republican side, I think we have 22 women in the House. I’m the only female veteran woman Republican in the House. We need to represent the diversity of our country, right? The more women we can have running and winning, the better off we’ll be.”
“We need Republican women at the table,” lamented Erin Loos Cutraro, the founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan, grassroots networking organization with the mission to increase the number of women running for office in the United States.
Before the 2016 election, She Should Run’s network had about 100 women join per month. That rate has risen tenfold in the 17 months since Trump’s victory, with close to 17,000 women joining.
“We’ve seen a tremendous surge of women come into our programs,” said Cutraro, pointing out that her organization does not ask members for partisan identification. But it’s clear, she said, that female political engagement at the grassroots level, post-Trump, remains a movement of the left.
A snapshot of US House candidates, both who have filed or intend to run, shows the increased political engagement as well as the lopsided numbers between the two parties. Data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University shows a historic number of women running for office in 2018, especially at the US House level.
But of the 440 women candidates running for the House, 332 are Democrats and 108 are Republican, according to a CAWP tally. In the Senate contests, again, Democratic women outnumber Republican women. The female partisan gap in the Senate races is smaller, at 32 Democrats to 22 Republicans, the CAWP research shows.
“It is sad, it is depressing. And the numbers are getting worse,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican congresswoman for Florida’s 27th district, of the levels of female Republican lawmakers in Washington. Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring this year after nearly three decades in office, says the Capitol is certainly more diverse than it was in 1989 when she was elected. But the numbers for women in the GOP are not improving year upon year. There are more Republicans in the House than a decade ago, but the proportion of women has fallen.
Overall, women make up 9.7% of Republican Senators and Representatives, following the appointment of Cindy Hyde-Smith as senator for Mississippi in April. For the Democrats, women now comprise just under 33% of voting members.
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Ros-Lehtinen bluntly looks at the White House for part of the blame. “Just stop with the name calling,” she said. “It turns women off. It turns a lot of people off, but especially young women. They just say this is ugly.”
“It’s inspiring Democratic women to run,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not inspiring Republican women to run. The rhetoric of the White House is a recruiting tool for liberal women to counter that.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who bursts with energy and insists guests indulge in the cafecito of her Miami-Cuban upbringing, leaves Washington with an ominous warning to her own party.
“As long as we’re seen as a party that’s homogenous, not heterogeneous, a party that doesn’t invite minorities and women, a party that excludes folks that may disagree with us a little bit, we’re not going to be a welcoming party for the future. And that’s to our detriment.”
The Trump Effect
For progressive women and outraged Democrats, Donald Trump’s election and first term have served as a rallying cry, leading to the historic levels of women running for office in 2018. “Trump does anger a lot of people, especially women,” said A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America. “A lot of people will call this the Trump effect. He’s in the White House; all these women want to run.”
Emerge America recruits women who want to run for public office and then offers them a six-month, 70-hour training program. The group, like the powerful Emily’s List and newcomer Run for Something, is unapologetically left-leaning and seeks to get progressive women into office. There are numerous other training and recruiting groups, including the nonpartisan VoteRunLead, which says it is seeing exponential growth after Trump’s election.
Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a first-time candidate running in Michigan’s 8th district, is backed by Emily’s List and is benefiting from the guidance and support women’s groups are offering in her inaugural political run.
Campaign finance reports show Slotkin’s fundraising is keeping up with the incumbent, Republican Rep. Mike Bishop. And in the first quarter of 2018, she outraised him – bringing in more than $800,000 against $457,000 for Bishop.
Slotkin brings to the campaign a career in public service and military intelligence. She is a former CIA analyst and served three tours in Iraq. She spent the last five years of the Obama administration at the Pentagon and was an adviser to two secretaries of defense. She marries that international portfolio with a rural upbringing in Holly, Michigan, where she and her retired military husband now live on the family farm.
Trump may have spoken to the so-called forgotten voters of the Midwest in 2016, winning her district by nearly 7%, according to the Almanac of American Politics, but Slotkin feels the constituency remains unheard and underrepresented in the Trump presidency. “I hear from people that Washington fundamentally does not understand what’s happening in Michigan, in the Midwest, the great transition in our economy – that we are just ignored and left out of the equation,” said Slotkin.
That moment when she personally felt shut out by Washington happened in May 2017, on the day the House voted to repeal Obamacare. Slotkin’s mother, who died in 2011 of ovarian cancer, had allowed her health insurance to lapse because of the cost. By the time she discovered she was ill and went to the doctor, Slotkin’s mother was already a stage 4 cancer patient.
Slotkin watched her congressman beaming and applauding as the Republicans celebrated with the President, even though the House had failed to find a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. “Something just broke for me. It was the absolute straw that broke the camel’s back,” remembered Slotkin. Talking to the image of her smiling congressman on TV, “I said, ‘you do not get to do this.’ I decided to try and fire him.”
Trump’s presidency has remained a constant source of energy and motivation for first-time candidates in the blue wave of women running for office.
Targeting Republican strongholds
“Every week there’s something happening,” said Emerge’s Gholar. “And then we get another woman who’s reaching out to us. ‘Help me learn how to run for office. Help me determine what office is best for me. Help me become that great candidate.’ All that great energy continues to just pile on.”
Emerge America, in the middle of a rapid expansion of its network, said it is pushing into the Republican strongholds of Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina in 2017. It’s developing affiliates in Arkansas and Georgia.
They see their expansion as a silver lining in Trump’s victory and Hillary Clinton’s loss. The events of 2016 sparked the wave of interest from Democratic women wanting to run for office. Then Emerge, and training groups like it, began supporting and developing that interest into full-fledged candidacies. The growing infrastructure, says Emerge, will not disappear if Trump were to leave office, ensuring Democratic women continue to train and run for office. The goal of these training groups is to boost the 20% representation of women in Congress to over 50%, matching the demographics of the United States.
On the Republican side, Ros-Lehtinen lamented the lack of funding and energy for groups supporting conservative female candidates, like Main Street and VIEW PAC.
The reason may simply be there’s little political penalty in elections for national Republicans if they don’t recruit women candidates, according to Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “They’ve been winning without it,” she says.
Exit polls in 2016 showed the majority of white women voted for Trump. “They can say, ‘It doesn’t matter to us, we’re winning elections. We’re winning women voters. There are conservative women voters still voting for us whether there are conservative women on the ballot or in office,’” Dittmar added.
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Cutraro, of the nonpartisan She Should Run, cautions Democrats from celebrating this record blue female wave or Republicans from ignoring it. If the only female representation in government is among Democratic women, then the voices of elected women will all come from a liberal viewpoint, and that wouldn’t be representative either, she argues. And it would not make for the best policies.
“The reality is, you want to have people who disagree with you at the table,” Cutraro says. “You want to have people who think differently. Smart, effective people who think differently. Because at the end of the day, you’re going to come out with the smartest policy.”
Kyung Lah and Alberto Moya reported this story from Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, Washington, New York, and Holly, Michigan.