Republican Women Grapple With Winning Back Suburban Female Voters

“People want to see more of themselves in office, and we have work to do.”

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Last year’s midterm elections led to 2018 frequently being hailed as the year of the woman — for Democrats, at least. 

There are now 102 women in House of Representatives ― more than any other time in history ― but only 13 are Republicans. Party leadership is comparatively mute on the topic of adding women to its ranks, and there isn’t a consensus that doing so is vital. Even if there were, the pipeline for electing women is leaky. The GOP doesn’t have groups to rival EMILY’s List, the Democratic group that provides significant support to female candidates, and it generally lacks resources for training and financing women who seek higher office.

The shortfall of elected women may be a reflection of the GOP electorate. In the 2018 midterms, women overall favored Democrats by an estimated 19 points. Republican women are overwhelmingly white, and typically either suburban or rural ― but white women, who supported Republicans by 12 points in 2016, split their vote about evenly between the two parties in 2018. It was not a mass defection but one great enough to contribute to Republicans losing their House seats.

HuffPost spoke to four Republican women who are thinking about whether and how the party ought to transform the role women play in setting the agenda and pleading the party’s case to voters in 2020. Here’s what they said.

Rebecca Schuller

Executive director of Winning for Women, part of the right’s answer to EMILY’s List

We are really focused this cycle on making sure we’re ready early, frankly — focused on the identification of quality candidates in the primaries. I’d like to see more women in the general elections in 2019, 2020. We all know that if those women don’t have the resources that they won’t make it through their primaries. The left has done a really good job, back to the 1980s, to provide that support from A to Z for women candidates.

From personal experience, I’ve just seen that there are too few women in the party. I firmly believe, and many in the party firmly believe, that if the resources aren’t there, they won’t step up, either. That is where women fall through the cracks. 

There are too few women in the party.

A large number of women who ran last cycle, many did not make it through their primaries in a system that requires support in a host of complicated ways. The traditional model hasn’t necessarily looked for women in the right places, either. Maybe leaders are looking through the state legislature, through professional societies, you name it, which are mostly made up of men.

And I do think women are often hesitant to jump into the arena thinking, How do you balance everything? A career that’s maybe unceasing, family obligations, the travel demands, you name it.

People want to see an electorate that represents them. Women voters are incredibly important [to the GOP] and we need to be speaking to them, and one way to do that is to have strong women candidates who they can identify with and vote for. People want to see more of themselves in office, and we have work to do.

Liz Mair

Political consultant

I don’t think that to get suburban women to vote Republican you need to nominate more women. I don’t think women for women for the sake of supporting women. If you nominate a woman who is a good, qualified candidate, who withstands every bit of scrutiny a candidate gets, great. With that being said, I have heard from some people that they do feel in some parts of the country that you have Republican officials who are more supporting, more willing to cut slack to male candidates who don’t meet the same high bar, and that dissuades more women from running.

Candidly, I think that for a lot of suburban women, Trump is noxious.

Looking back on 2018, I wish I could say, “Let’s do this one thing differently next time.”

Take health care. I don’t think the Republican Party has a good answer on health care. The Democrats, at least, can get on one or two pages when it comes to health care, while Republicans are maybe on six different pages.

We could do everything “right” and still have a larger issue. When Donald Trump is actually or proverbially at the top of the ticket? Candidly, I think that for a lot of suburban women, Trump is noxious. They don’t like him. I don’t think there’s anything the Republican Party will do about that. Realistically, what the bigger answer to the problem is, we can’t do it. Nobody is going to deprive him of the nomination if he wants it again.

Jennifer Pierotti Lim

Co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, a group born out of Republican Women for Hillary

We represent a very specific group, but a growing group nonetheless. I think for our type of Republican women — and our generation of Republican women — the first big thing (and for a lot of law-and-order Republican as well) [is we] would really like for Congress to get back to legislating. The normal, proper process of lawmaking.  

We want many of the same things women want. To be respected, [have] safe workspaces, access to affordable health care. A lot of Republican women are excited about these talks about paid family leave, equal pay and things like that. A lot of those things that are termed “women’s issues.” I think there are a lot of Democratic women and Republican women that want to be at the table for that. 

We’re going to see more Republican women deciding that we can’t keep doing this.

When you are talking about Republican women specifically, there are a lot of generational divides that are really interesting. Older Republican women … they’re more comfortable with how the Republican Party has approached social issues. We think that’s extreme and doesn’t really help women. Republican women our age are seeing the need for seeing beyond “we can’t do identity politics” ― we need to be talking about women’s issues in a different way. Women need to be at the table, which they are not currently at in the party.

That’s why we feel like Republican women are the answer to the Republican Party’s problems.  

In 2018 we saw Republican women voting for Democrats in their districts because that group of suburban, college-educated white women ended up being pivotal after they weren’t happy with their previous votes. Especially by 2020, if we’re looking at another four years of Trump, we’re going to see more Republican women deciding that we can’t keep doing this and that it’s not working.

Kristan Hawkins

President of Students for Life of America

There were a bunch of articles post-Trump’s election. Republican women, what were they thinking about, what is the future of the GOP? … Part of the answer, these were Christian women who cared about issues like abortion. Looking at 2018, I’m not a big personal believer of [the idea that] we need to do all these things differently. The issues, the Republican Party platform is the same that drove many people out in 2016. 

Everything we were told could get done, couldn’t get done.

But we had this huge opportunity and sadly, a lot of it was kind of squandered. Leader [Mitch] McConnell has done significant work and should be applauded. Look at all these judicial nominees getting confirmed, filling these vacancies. But everything we were told could get done couldn’t get done because they have to have 60 votes in the Senate for a lot of that. And that’s a lot of unfinished promises. When does anyone ever think ever again we’re going to get to a point where we can pass controversial legislation in the Senate?

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Jenavieve Hatch contributed reporting.

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