Women hold the key to the GOP’s future, yet we seem to be moving backward.
The number of Republican women in the new Congress will drop slightly, from 28 to 26, compared to a slight increase in Democratic women, from 76 to 78. At least half a dozen Republican women in the House will likely leave in 2018 in order to run for governor or senator, which could reduce the numbers of Republican women in the House to a low that we haven’t seen since the 1980s.
As a female CEO of a national Republican organization, the Republican Main Street Partnership, those numbers concern me, especially since issues important to women—including mental health, opioid addiction and workplace flexibility—helped win many of the congressional victories in the recent election.
Presently, women make up more than half of the population and about 53% of voters but account for only about one-fifth of Congress. There is evidence from both major parties that suburban women are deciding our present-day elections. This year, many of those suburban women overlooked many flaws at the top of the GOP ticket and opted for safety and security over the status quo.
Republican congresswomen have been more likely than their male colleagues to prioritize issues dealing with the special needs of women, children and families. Since 2014, I’ve run the Women2Women Conversations Tour, which brings Republican congresswomen together with audiences of women around the country. The give-and-take from those events has led to real legislative action, including a new push for comprehensive mental health reform and the passage into law of a desperately needed sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights, introduced by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA).
Republicans are a pretty cheerful bunch following Donald Trump’s unexpected win in the Presidential race and the party’s success in retaining control of both the House and Senate. The GOP likely won’t commission a review of its electoral vulnerabilities as it did in 2013 in the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat. But with new leadership coming into the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, female recruitment of candidates for 2016 and 2018 must be a high priority.
Without a prioritized recruitment effort, the declining number of Republican women in Congress could have a negative effect on the party in both the short and long terms. The party should start thinking hard about how to reverse that trend.
Republican women play a critically important role in Congress in helping to pass legislation and keep the institution from gridlock. They’re better able to cooperate with members of both parties and get things done, and they generally try to govern rather than disrupt.
Research has found that Congresswomen sponsor more bills and deliver more federal dollars to their districts than their male counterparts. Now a new study has found that Republican women in Congress attract more across-the-aisle cosponsors for their bills than Republican men or Democratic legislators of either gender.
The collegiality and practicality of Republican Congresswomen have helped keep Congress (and the nation) afloat. That was especially the case in 2013 when Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) went to the Senate floor to call for the government shutdown to end. The first three Senators who called her to offer help, she recalled, were women: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
The Republican Party lacks the infrastructure the Democratic Party has built to increase the number of women legislators. I’m trying to do my part by putting together a political action committee that will provide early campaign contributions to Republican women candidates—sort of the equivalent of EMILY’s List. But the Republican Party as a whole must do much more to recruit and encourage women candidates and to connect them with the mentors and fundraising networks they need to win. Building the Women2Women tour can be pivotal in the next election cycle. The GOP has the tools to move this forward and should do so post-haste.
In the long run, greater numbers of Republican women in Congress will help close the GOP’s “gender gap.” More important, Congress and the nation will benefit when the Republican Party draws more deeply upon the talents, abilities, and contributions of American women.
Sarah Chamberlain is President and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership
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