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Inside the movement that swept Republican women into Congress

Of the 12 seats that Republicans wrested from Democratic control so far this year, nine were flipped by women. Only three Republican men can say the same.
U.S. Rep-elect Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida. Earlier this month, she beat Democratic incumbent Donna Shalala in a tight race for Congressional District 27.
U.S. Rep-elect Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida. Earlier this month, she beat Democratic incumbent Donna Shalala in a tight race for Congressional District 27.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via AP

While Democrats powered the record-breaking wave of women elected to Congress two years ago, this year’s gains by Republican women are turning 2018’s "pink wave" a deeper shade of red.

With two races newly called on Friday, a record total of 35 Republican women will be serving in the House and Senate next term, including 19 House freshmen — a leap over the 22 Republican women who are serving in the House and Senate now. In January, the Republican caucus will be home to the youngest Republican woman ever elected, a grandmother of 16, the party’s first Korean-American Republican women in office, two daughters of Cuban immigrants, and the first Iranian-American to serve in office.

To be clear, there will be more than three times as many Democratic women in Congress next year, including at least 89 in the House and 16 in the Senate. But with this year's gains by both parties, women's representation in Congress will reach an all-time high of 27 percent of all House members, up from 23 percent this year. While one-in-four isn't parity, it's as close as the House has ever gotten.

"We're going to continue doing what we do on the congressional level to make sure that the people's House starts looking more like the people," said Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC, which works to elect more Republican women to the House and Senate. Her party is taking a victory lap this cycle because it has long taken heat for the small numbers of women and minorities in its ranks.

During this election cycle, a record 228 Republican women filed paperwork to run for office this year, shattering the previous record of 133 women in 2010. A record 94 of them made it out of the primaries to become the Republican nominees going into Election Day (again, nearly double the record set in 2004 by 53 women nominees).

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“It’s been a long time coming,” said Conway. “I think everybody’s looking for the magical reason why 2020 was such a good year for Republican women, but the reality is, it’s a combination of a lot of things over a lot of years... seats that were winnable, and incredible women running for those seats, and the infrastructure around them finally at a point that they were able to get at least some of the help they needed to get them over certain obstacles and then they were able to be successful because they, quite frankly, worked their tails off.”

Many of this year's Republican candidates won races in key districts, flipping seats from blue to red and narrowing the balance of power in Congress' lower chamber. Republicans flipped 12 congressional seats this cycle according to the latest vote count. And out of the 12 seats that Republicans wrested from Democratic control so far this year, nine were flipped by women. Only three Republican men can say the same.

“These seats we flipped, we flipped them because they were amazing Republican women,” Conway said. “If they had been amazing Republican guys, I think we lose these seats, or at least a good number of them.”

While Conway is quick to give credit to the winning candidates, their successes reflect a concerted effort by Republicans to recruit, endorse, empower and invest in a more diverse slate of candidates. Groups like Conway’s VIEW PAC, Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC, and Winning for Women PAC leant some muscle to this year’s tough fights. They’re also creating a pipeline of talented Republican women to be competitive in the years to come.

“The Democrats have been so good for so long about really prioritizing women candidates and really developing a pipeline of candidates and raising funds, specifically for women candidates, and the Republicans haven't,” said Meghan Milloy, co-founder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress. “There are finally Republican groups that are focused solely on women candidates and creating this pipeline and creating a space for women to come in and step into leadership.”

Her organization, which began in 2016 as Republican Women for Hillary, distinguishes candidates on its “Women to Watch” list, elevates candidates’ profiles in media appearances, and runs a yearly campaign training in conjunction with The Campaign School at Yale University.

“So much of what we do really is a soft touch,” Milloy said. “We have candidates that come to us and they may be running for the first time and they need a campaign manager, or they need to find a fundraiser in Washington or some kind of [thing] that we all take for granted being in D.C. all the time, that might be more difficult for someone on the West Coast.”

Connecting, coaching, and encouraging is at the heart of their work. “Sometimes all it takes is just kind of a 30-minute pump-up session to tell them that they're brilliant and great and they're doing the right thing,” Milloy said.

That “soft touch” is in contrast to The Winning For Women Action Fund, which put hard dollars behind Republican women candidates this cycle to the tune of $3 million dollars. The group launched in 2018 after only one Republican woman was newly elected to the House and only 13 Republican women served in that branch. Winning For Women’s spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas called it “a crisis level.”

“It was kind of rock bottom,” Perez-Cubas said. “You had party leadership rally behind this notion that we need to do a better job of recruiting and supporting and ultimately electing more Republican women.”

This year’s winning Republican women candidates fell into a few different camps: One group came out of districts where an incumbent — almost always an older white man — had decided to retire. Another group had run and lost in 2018, but had gained name recognition and experience campaigning in the process. And a third group of candidates were office holders in their state legislatures and decided to take the next step into national office.

To support them, Winning For Women launched a Super PAC and made six-figure ad buys in places like Iowa for candidates including incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst and newcomers Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks. The organization put candidates in touch with its board members, former Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Rep. Barbara Comstock, to help hone fundraising messages.

“We worked hand in glove,” Conway said of her VIEW PAC, Winning for Women, and E-PAC, a political action committee launched by Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik after the 2018 midterms. “We were sharing information, we were talking to each other, we knew which candidates each one was supporting, we encouraged each other to support the same candidates, and then we looked at where it was going to make a difference.”

VIEW PAC, which stands for the Value In Electing Women Political Action Committee, was founded in 1997 and far out-dates the other major players in this space. Conway said her organization gave early monetary support and she worked directly with a lot of the candidates.

“That was the first notch in the belt, so to speak,” Conway said. “Then Elise came along, and she endorsed the candidate. So now the candidates have double endorsements, a lot of them, from Elise as an elected official, who could influence her colleagues, the members of Congress, to say, ‘Hey, these are the women we're really paying attention to,’ and she got their attention... And Winning for Women, their wheelhouse [is] doing the independent expenditure stuff.” Susan B. Anthony list, which supports pro-life candidates, also invested heavily in these races.

“None of us individually are ever going to be Emily's List,” Conway said of the powerhouse PAC for pro-choice Democratic women. “But when we work collectively together, we're pretty impactful.”