Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity

Republicans have a woman problem, and it could cost them the Senate

July 27, 2020, 7:45 PM UTC

Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is fueled by subscribers. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.

Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line, so the old saying goes. 

The Republicans’ mindset of platform over person has led to a solid aversion to identity politics and diversity initiatives over the years. The GOP has long trailed the left in recruiting, running, and electing women into office, a story clearly shown through demographic data of Republicans in office. But now, a series of poll numbers and controversial events show that deprioritizing gender diversity could come back to hurt the GOP this November. 

The number of female Republican candidates running for office has risen over the past 30 years (though at a lower rate than Democratic women), but the rate of GOP women who win their elections has fallen dramatically. The number of Republican women in the House is now at the lowest it’s been since the early 1990s, according to data obtained by the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

Over the past four years, the number of female Republican senators has doubled, but the right could lose those gains entirely in 2020. Four of the nine women in their caucus are looking at tight races this November in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and Maine. There are 23 Republican seats and just 12 Democratic seats up for grabs this November—the left only needs to win four to take control.

A series of recent public incidents regarding the harassment of women by Republican politicians adds to growing concern that the party is not hospitable to female candidates.

Last week, Republican congressman Ted Yoho of Florida and Roger Williams of Texas approached their Democratic colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol building.  

In front of reporters and with no provocation, Yoho told Ocasio-Cortez that she was “disgusting” and out of her “freaking mind.” The 30-year-old New York representative said the comments were rude and walked away. He responded by calling her a “fucking bitch.” 

Two days later, Ocasio-Cortez addressed the confrontation on the floor of Congress.

“This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural,” she said. “It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports men. Because not only have I been spoken to disrespectfully, particularly by members of the Republican Party and elected officials in the Republican Party, not just here, but the President of the United States last year told me to ‘go home to another country,’ with the implication that I don’t even belong in America. The governor of Florida, Governor DeSantis, before I even was sworn in, called me a ‘whatever-that-is.’”

The harassment occurred shortly after Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in Congress, was berated on Twitter by male colleagues and President Donald Trump for supporting Dr. Anthony Fauci and opposing military withdrawal from Germany and Afghanistan. 

On Thursday afternoon, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was presented with the two incidents and asked if Republicans have a “woman problem.” 

The congressman pointed to numbers that show a record number of women ran for Congress this year, though he added there was room for improvement. He then said, still addressing the question about a lack of respect for and representation of women within the party, “Our newest member elected to this Congress, Mike Garcia, is not a woman, but he’s a first-generation American.” 

McCarthy’s comments, equating female representation with first-generation American representation, were puzzling. But his statement about women running for office also doesn’t paint the full picture of the struggle for female representation in Washington. 

In 2018, about a quarter of all Republican female candidates were successful in their bid for office—over half of Democratic women were. 

Among nonincumbents, only 2.9% of Republican women were successful in November 2018—there was one female House GOP freshman—compared with the 19% of nonincumbent Republican men who won races and the nearly 28% of nonincumbent Democratic women who were successful.

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik called the moment a “stark, stark wake-up call,” and launched a PAC to recruit more Republican women to run for office. But Democrats have had organizations like Emily’s List that encourage women to run for decades, while PACs like Stefanik’s are just beginning. 

And those Republican women who are running for office face uphill battles. They’re largely up against incumbents, and some haven’t yet won their primaries, a stage where Republican women tend to struggle. The problem isn’t that Republican women aren’t running for office. The problem is that they’re not winning when they run against men.

“The Republican base is very conservative, and that’s who’s voting in primaries,” said CAWP associate director Jean Sinzdak. “Voters on the Republican side are more traditional in what they expect from their elected officials, and historically those officials aren’t female. They’re older, male, and white.”

The Republican women who win their primaries are also more likely to live in districts that are solidly Democratic or that lean Democratic, according to data from the Cook Political Report. Even if they do win primaries, the chances that they win the general election in blue districts are minuscule.

“As far as 2020 being ‘the year of the Republican woman,’ the early data casts doubt on that,” reads a CAWP report.

“A big part of this has to do with identity politics,” Sinzdak told Fortune. “The Democratic party has been the party to say that diversity is a valuable asset that brings something unique to politics, though they’re not perfect. That hasn’t been the case on the Republican side where it’s more about the party line and less about background.”  

Republicans say that these particular races just happen to be competitive and have nothing to do with gender, but Democrats counter that this is the result of a sustained loss of suburban female voters. Joe Biden currently leads Trump with female voters by a historic margin of 59% to 35%, the most female support for a nominee in 70 years. 

“The biggest issue is delving into why Republicans don’t recognize identity politics and what can be done by the GOP from the top down to place a value on the diversity of their candidates,” said Sinzdak. “It’s just so hard to get Republican leadership past the standard line of ‘We just want the best person for the job regardless of what they look like.’” 

More politics coverage from Fortune: