More than that, though, the GOP — which has long shunned identity politics, at least when it comes to gender — has experienced a real attitude and cultural shift around electing more women to Congress, according to interviews with over a dozen lawmakers, candidates, operatives and aides. Women are stepping up to run, citing their gender as an asset and answering the siren sounded by party leaders — even as President Donald Trump remains divisive among women of both parties.
“The 2018 cycle was a motivating factor,” said retiring Rep. Susan Brooks (Ind.), one of just 13 Republican women in the House and head of recruitment efforts for the party’s campaign arm. “Even though we had been recruiting and helping women candidates, we realized we did need to shift some strategy and do far more.”
And so far, the initiative has paid off: 227 Republican women filed to run for the House this cycle and 94 of them won primaries, shattering past records on both fronts. Previously, the highest number of Republican women to run for the House was 130, while the highest number of GOP women to win primaries was 53, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
“I’m honored and proud to help change the discussion,” said Diana Harshbarger, a pharmacist who is almost certainly joining Congress next year after beating out several male primary opponents in a deep red seat in Tennessee. “Conservative Republican women are alive and well and I hope I can be an inspiration.”
But the big test will come in November, when the House GOP is once again facing tough political headwinds. And with Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans fear that the same suburban revolt that wiped out 10 of the House GOP’s women last cycle — and delivered the majority to Democrats — could bring another soul-crushing disappointment for House Republicans, despite their successful recruitment and primary efforts.
And making things more precarious is that many of the GOP’s top female recruits are running in some of the toughest races in the country, meaning that even if Republicans make gains in these districts, they could be easily erased the following cycle.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even acknowledged that the party’s biggest hurdle is still pushing Republican women through primaries in ruby red seats that will guarantee their entry — and long-term careers — in Congress.
“The challenge is when you start getting women and minorities just in the swing seats,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in an interview. “I want people to be in leadership. So going into these safer seats, I’ve worked hard to provide that opportunity as well.”
Republicans are guaranteed to add at least five new women to their conference next year, thanks to primary victories by female candidates in deep red seats, including Marjorie Taylor Green, a controversial nominee in Georgia who has espoused racist views. That gives Republican much needed wiggle room in the numbers game. Of the 13 GOP women currently serving in the House, two are retiring, Brooks and Rep. Martha Roby (Ala.), and another two, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.) and Ann Wagner (Mo.) face competitive races and could lose reelection.
Wagner is particularly vulnerable and her suburban St. Louis district has seen millions in outside spending from super PACs.
The GOP has a slew of women nominees running in some of the most competitive districts, including in six of the seven Democratic-held seats that Trump won by 10 points or higher — a sign that women are a key part of the GOP’s playbook in their long-shot bid to win back the House, hoping to win back the female voters that have fled the party under Trump.
Among the candidates best poised to flip a Democratic seat: Michelle Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor running against Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.); former Rep. Claudia Tenney who is locked in a rematch with Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.); and state Sen. Stephanie Bice, who is challenging Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.).
But in races where Trump may not be a boon, party strategists say female candidates often have an easier time than their male counterparts winning over conservative-leaning voters who are uneasy of the president’s demeanor.
In a northeast Iowa district, Ashley Hinson, a GOP state representative running against freshman Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, casts herself as an accessible “suburban mom” and notes that she has run ahead of both Trump and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in her state legislative district.
“Regardless of what people’s opinions are about the president, I am my own brand,” she said. “I certainly wish sometimes he would tweet less, too, but it’s his brand.”
If the GOP succeeds in packing their ranks, it will be done on the backs of congresswomen in swing-seats, leaving the party one bad cycle away from a precipitous fall — similar to what happened in 2018.
Party strategists know they can achieve a more lasting change by electing women in safe, red seats, who will be largely insulated from an unfavorable political environment. And they’ve had ample opportunity to do so in the four years since Trump took office as a rash of incumbents have retired.
But of the three dozen safe-seat Republicans who retired in 2018, just two women won the primaries to replace them. In the 2020 cycle, the GOP saw roughly 20 safe-seat retirements, and nominated five women: Harshbarger and Kat Cammack in Florida, Mary Miller in Illinois, Lisa McClain in Michigan and Greene in Georgia.
Still, the party has seen some improvements elsewhere this cycle. GOP lawmakers and strategists say one big difference is that more male Republicans — including members of leadership — have been willing to pick sides in open primary races involving female candidates.
McCarthy backed a trio of female candidates facing primaries in 2020: Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa, Mary Miller in Illinois and Beth Van Duyne in Texas. And House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) supported 18 women before their primaries, including Hinson, Tenney and Meeks.
“We did have a lot of more male colleagues engaged in primaries,” said Brooks, who came to Congress after emerging from an eight-way primary with the support of just one sitting lawmaker: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the former GOP conference chair.
Playing in primaries was long considered taboo; in fact, NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) even said in 2018 that he thought it was a “mistake” for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to launch a PAC dedicated to boosting Republican women in primaries.
But the party — and Emmer and Stefanik — have come a long way since then. While the House GOP’s campaign arm still maintains a policy of remaining neutral in primaries, Emmer has made clear that expanding the roster of female and minority lawmakers is a top priority, and he has given regular updates on the party’s recruitment efforts during the House GOP’s monthly political meetings.
“There has always been a commitment to recruit the best candidates. I don’t think it’s ever changed. Here’s what has changed: I think there’s a team work that we’ve seen over the last few years that we just haven’t seen before,” Emmer said in an interview.
Another reason the GOP has been able to achieve more success with recruitment and primaries is the growth of outside spending groups that are solely dedicated to electing women, including Stefanik’s Elevate PAC, Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, a group that’s been around since 1997. Fundraising has historically been a major barrier for Republican women.
But Republicans still have a lot of work to do, with Democrats having long benefitted from the behemoth EMILY’s List network. And even if the GOP is able to achieve their ambitious goal of restoring their ranks of women, their numbers will still pale in comparison to Democrats, who swore in dozens in the 2018 cycle dubbed “the year of the woman.”
“2018 hit a new low … It lit a fire in a lot of people’s bellies and put it to the forefront,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for Winning for Women Action Fund, the first Republican super PAC dedicated to electing women. “We’re still very much in a game of catchup, but they’ve had decades of experience on us. That’s just the reality.
“But I do think the party is on the same page,” she added. “Republicans are raising their hand and the stars are aligning.”