The 25 most powerful women in politics
In a Washington where more women than ever before are serving in Congress—and running for the nation’s highest office—identifying the 25 most powerful is a Herculean task.
After all, in the world of politics, power can take many forms: the power to command votes, to shape the national agenda, to stoke or deflate the economy, to become a king—or should we say—queenmaker. So our 2019 list includes elected officials, appointees, influencers, and money movers (and, we admit, a little fuzzy math). But no matter the role, we weighed the same factors: the power granted by her position, her influence on policy and political conversation, and the trajectory of her career.
The result: names you see in the headlines daily—and a few you might be reading for the first time. The combination is fitting, says Stephanie Cutter, a former senior adviser to President Obama turned consultant: “The dirty little secret about Washington is that women have been running things behind the scenes for a long time, but now they’re getting credit for it.”
The elected officials
It’s impossible to talk about political power players without talking about Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The longtime California representative is on her second go-round as Speaker of the House—still the first and only woman to hold the job—eight years after losing the gavel in the 2011 midterms. The most powerful woman in U.S. elected office has gone toe-to-toe with President Trump, set the tone for Democrats on impeachment, and gone viral simply by donning a Max Mara coat. If that’s not power, what is? Says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University: “She’s a constant reminder that women are tough enough and strong enough to lead at the highest levels.”
Three years after Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to win a major party’s nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is a front-runner to follow in her historic footsteps. Propelled by her detailed blueprints for tackling everything from student loan debt to the maternal mortality crisis—“I have a plan for that!” has become Warren’s unofficial mantra—recent national polls have her virtually tied with fellow leaders former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) in the Democratic primary race. With the hordes turning out for selfies at Warren rallies also opening their wallets (the campaign has raised over $25 million from more than a million donations), there’s only one conclusion: Warren has redefined what political charisma looks like.
Fellow candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) still trails Warren in polls and funding but remains a powerful contender with a viable path to the White House—as she showed when she took on Biden in the early primary debates. Of black and South Asian heritage, Harris, who was 7 years old when African-American Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination, is the first woman of color to have a real shot at landing it.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)’s power in Washington transcends her position as a freshman congresswoman. The 29-year-old New Yorker has pushed her boundary-breaking proposals from the fringes onto the Democratic agenda. And her influence extends beyond policy. No one has been more effective when it come to enraging the right—or energizing the next wave of challengers on the left: Thirty-nine Democratic women are running to unseat their party’s incumbents in 2020, compared with 14 at this point in the 2018 cycle. They saw AOC win—and they’re ready to earn their own acronym.
Warren, Harris, and Ocasio-Cortez account for just three of the 106 Democratic women in Congress, but the pool of elected GOP women on Capitol Hill—21 congresswomen—is significantly shallower. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has made it her life’s work to change that. The youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress, Stefanik, now on her third term, has turned her PAC into a full-time GOP-women recruitment machine, dedicated to helping female candidates win primaries. The Republican Party needs that next generation of women—and it needs Stefanik.
Another Republican force in the House: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Cheney holds sway as the only woman in GOP House leadership, and she hasn’t denied speculation that she may make a second run at the Senate in 2020 (her last bid was in 2014). While generally seen as a Trump loyalist, she’s proved willing to break with GOP doctrine, be it by opposing the administration on certain foreign policy issues or calling for the resignation of fellow Republican Rep. Steve King following his controversial comments about rape and incest. “We’ve always known she could take on the Dems, but now we’re seeing she can be an independent voice,” says Tammy Haddad, CEO of D.C. communications firm Haddad Media.
Given the state of partisan polarization, swing votes are arguably rarer—and more important—than ever before. On the Democratic side, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the first in her party to win an open Senate seat in Arizona since 1976, has stepped into that role, occasionally breaking with the Dems on issues like immigration. Across the aisle, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has also defied her party—and does so with greater security than fellow swing vote Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who’s gearing up for a tough reelection fight.
Rarely has losing an election turned a candidate into a star. Yet Stacey Abrams’s narrow defeat in the Georgia gubernatorial race pales in comparison to her political prospects. Her name has been floated in connection with everything from the Senate to the presidency, though the most likely bet in the short term appears to be the veep spot on the 2020 Democratic ticket. Whatever Abrams’s next move, her work through her organization Fair Fight might have the longest-lasting political impact: Protecting all Americans’ right to vote is what will really change the face of politics.
Whereas Abrams is new on the national scene, EMILY’s List is a veteran. The group granting coveted endorsements and financial resources to pro-choice Democratic women, led by president Stephanie Schriock, has been one of the most powerful Democratic organizations since the late 1980s; the implosion of Planned Parenthood’s leadership has only concentrated power in its hands. In 2020, EMILY’s List will be putting $20 million behind flipping state legislative chambers blue.
Transitioning from old-school GOP politics to Trump’s Washington was difficult for some of the city’s elite Republicans. Ronna Romney McDaniel (niece of Utah senator and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney) has handled the change with aplomb, taking up the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee and even publicly siding with Trump over her establishment-leaning uncle. The RNC will be a crucial force in the 2020 elections, especially when it comes to uniting the party behind Trump.
Unlike McDaniel, Maya Harris has thrown her chips in with family, serving as campaign chair for her sister Kamala. But win or lose, Harris has the background to carve out a bright political future: After stints at the Ford Foundation and the ACLU, the lawyer served as a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton (and it doesn’t hurt that she and her husband, Tony West, chief legal officer for Uber, are a classic political power couple).
The list of top female political donors of 2019 contains plenty of familiar last names—but many are spouses of major male donors. The Simon sisters, Deborah Simon and Cynthia Simon-Skjodt, are the rare pairing who are not a couple, but siblings. Simon has donated $3.6 million to Democratic and liberal politicians so far in 2019—the most at the national level from an individual female donor—while Simon-Skjodt has given $1.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Heirs to the Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the shopping mall magnates ramped up their national political contributions after the 2016 election.
Linda McMahon led the Small Business Administration until April, when she resigned from her cabinet position to head up Trump’s reelection super PAC, America First Action. The PAC has raked in $9 million so far in the 2020 cycle—$1 million of which was McMahon’s own money. If its efforts pay off and Trump wins another term, McMahon will have accrued serious clout with the administration come Inauguration Day.
While Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has stayed relatively hands-off in his ownership of the Washington Post, Laurene Powell Jobs is leaning into the role of D.C. journalism power broker, setting strategy at The Atlantic after buying a majority stake in the news organization through her firm the Emerson Collective. With investments in Axios, another pub targeting the D.C. elite, and Pop-Up Magazine Productions, publisher of The California Sunday Magazine, Powell Jobs is growing into a media titan.
Some companies have run from public political stances—but Salesforce has embraced them. Niki Christoff heads that directive in Washington as SVP of government relations. Christoff has led the Silicon Valley company’s efforts around federal privacy legislation and the Equality Act; Salesforce spent $2.1 million on lobbying in 2018. While some of Christoff’s peers might oversee bigger spending, she sets strategy on behalf of a company willing to wrestle with the controversial issues of the day.
President Trump started his term with five women in his cabinet; today there are three. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has—against all odds—held on. DeVos came into the role as an outsider with new and, in many cases, controversial ideas about education. In her time in the job, she’s executed that agenda, mostly through deregulation: Under her watch the administration has rolled back restrictions on for-profit colleges, rescinded Obama-era protections of transgender students, and more. Higher education is watching to see how she finalizes Title IX rules reducing universities’ responsibility in sexual assault allegations against students.
CIA vet Gina Haspel, the first woman to direct the agency, came into her cabinet post through a contentious confirmation process focused on her record overseeing “enhanced interrogations.” After more than three decades at the agency, Haspel is well-respected by her colleagues and brings insider cred to an administration that has often sparred with the intelligence community.
The turnover at the White House has made the revolving door of the cabinet look like a steady gig. Stephanie Grisham, whose effectiveness as Melania Trump’s spokeswoman earned her the added title of press secretary in June, provides much-needed continuity. She’s already reshaping our expectations of a presidential administration: As of press time, she has yet to conduct a media briefing.
In the early days of the Trump White House, Ivanka Trump was seen as one of her father’s most influential advisers. More than two years in, her reported pleas for the President to change his mind—on the Paris climate accord, gun background checks—appear to have gone unheard more often than not. Yet Ivanka Trump still has a West Wing office—and, perhaps, her own political future ahead.
For those looking for an in with Trump, White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway is a good bet. The first woman to run a winning presidential campaign, she has proved herself a convincing voice in the President’s ear. Although Conway has become a less frequent presence on cable news, she remains a tireless defender of the administration, never shying away from a fight.
Janet Yellen is gone, but the Women of the Fed are still influencing our monetary policy—and everyday lives. San Francisco Fed president Mary Daly, Cleveland’s Loretta Mester, and Kansas City’s Esther George—with nearly a “century of experience combined,” notes Deutsche Bank chief U.S. economist Matthew Luzzetti—run three of the 12 regional banks; they’re joined by Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board of governors with a voting seat on the Federal Open Market Committee.
At the SEC, commissioner Hester Peirce has been dubbed “CryptoMom” for her support of the emerging blockchain-based financial system—an enthusiasm that lends legitimacy to a potentially massively disruptive technology. Peirce has also won fans in the GOP for her hands-off approach to regulation.
As administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma sets policies that affect 120 million Americans. Verma has given states latitude in how they execute Medicaid, a combined state and federal program. She’s working on lowering drug prices—a White House effort—improving resources for rural hospitals, and fixing America’s messy system of electronic health records. In an administrative position that can get dragged into politics, Verma stands strongly against the growing call among Democrats for Medicare for All.
Is it too much to say that the future of the Supreme Court rests on the tiny shoulders of 86-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Perhaps, but there’s no arguing that the Court would be dramatically reshaped if the liberal-leaning Justice were to leave the bench during a Republican administration. That has given the oldest serving member of the court—and her seemingly unbeatable constitution—a unique kind of power, enhanced by her status as an icon among liberal women.
From Congress to the cabinet, the women on this list show that as in the business world, there’s no single way to wield power in Washington. As Rutgers’s Debbie Walsh notes of the diversity of background and ideology of women running for President—and by extension, their fellow D.C. power players: “They can’t just be lumped together as ‘the women.’ ”
Renae Reints contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in the October 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “25 Most Powerful Women in D.C. Politics.”
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