Women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and yet there’s an ongoing exodus of 11 Democratic women from the House.
This includes Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a member of the Jan. 6 Committee who flipped her Florida district from red to blue, and reflects the dashed hopes of the progress that unified power had briefly promised.
“I’m accustomed to being stoned by Republicans,” Murphy said when she announced she wouldn’t be running for reelection. “I was a bit surprised to see Democrats eat their own.”
There are still three times more Democratic women in the House than Republican—90 to 31—but the energy and the enthusiasm for running for elective office at all levels is on the Republican side. “They’re breaking records,” said Debbie Walsh with the Center for American Women in Politics, making up ground they lost in 2018 when there were just 13 Republican women in the House, and anticipating that women will help deliver the majority to the GOP in November.
There’s been a sea change in attitude in the GOP about what Republicans like to deride as “identity politics.” Before 2020, the GOP didn’t actively recruit and run many women, and most women couldn’t make it out of the primaries. In 2018, when 36 new women were elected to the House, 35 of them were Democrats. That’s when the GOP realized that investing politically in women and people of color is likely to yield positive returns. In 2020, more women than men flipped seats from blue to red on the Republican side. Eleven of the GOP’s 15-seat pickup went to women.
“They could find women as right wing as the men, who could raise a lot of money and be competitive, and a lot of independent women voted for them thinking they weren’t as right wing as they are,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who specializes in tracking the women’s vote. While she points out that Democratic women are leaving Congress at about the same rate as men, “what it’s doing is decimating what it took us decades to build up, that is the dilemma.”
Julie Conway, Executive Director of VIEWPAC (Value in Electing Women) confirmed Lake’s assessment of how the GOP won seats that Democrats thought they would hold. “In 2020, we got women through the process who were able to pivot back to win those suburban seats. As a woman, they were thought to be more moderate, more empathetic.”
Women are getting closer to parity in the Democratic caucus (90 out of 224) and the 11 retiring women are among 30 retirements overall. “I don’t know it’s gender specific,” said Matt Bennett with Third Way, a Democratic centrist think tank. “The rising prospect of serving in a House run by a bunch of Trumpian insurrectionists is not appealing.”
The loss of women heralded as rising stars will be most keenly felt with the departures of Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese-born Florida congresswoman who identified as a Blue Dog conservative Democrat, and Rep. Kathleen Rice, a former prosecutor and district attorney in New York who served on the Homeland Security and Energy committees.
When Democrats in 2018 flipped 41 U.S. House seats, 23 of those seats were flipped by women candidates. In 2020, Democrats only flipped three U.S. House seats, but all three were flipped by women candidates.
On the Republican side, only one incumbent is leaving the House, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, and she’s running for the Senate in Missouri to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blount.
The disparity does not bode well for Democrats in the upcoming midterms. “It’s a problem of energy and enthusiasm, and a problem of persuasion,” said Lake. “Republicans are already supercharged. Democrats are much less excited, particularly African Americans and women. We need an economic message, and we don’t have it.”
Older women voters are key, and they don’t think wages are keeping up, or social security is keeping up, and they do not think the end is in sight,” Lake added. The White House is frustrated that President Biden is not getting credit for what he’s accomplished with two major legislative achievements—the American Rescue Plan, and the first significant investment in infrastructure in more than a generation.
Voters are not clear about what’s been accomplished, and they’re reacting to rising inflation that’s in their face, according to Lake. “They’re just doing a Hail Mary for change.”
One notable trend: Republican women once noted for their moderation have moved far to the right to win in partisan districts, with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert becoming prominent new faces of the GOP. And in south Texas, Mexican-born Mayra Flores is running as a proud Republican in a June 14 special election. She also repeatedly shared QAnon hashtags and memes, though she now denies having ever supported its outlandish conspiracy theories.
This is a far cry from when Republican women were presumed more moderate than their male counterparts. As the GOP shifted to the right, so did its women members, said Debbie Walsh. “Those moderate women may be out there, but you can’t see them because they can’t make it through a primary.” Walsh cited former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s 2006 book, It’s My Party Too, about her effort to reclaim the GOP from an ascendant right wing.
The next few months encompass the primary season, and in a welcome sign of political maturity, some women on the right will be facing off among themselves in intramural fights. VIEWPAC is supporting challenger Jennifer Strayhorn, a rock-ribbed conservative, in Greene’s newly drawn Georgia district, which is now slightly less red. VIEWPAC did not back Greene or Boebert, calling them “carnival barkers” in a legislators’ job that requires collaboration.
“Few people know the other 18 women we elected (in 2020) because Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert stole that platform,” said Conway.
As Republican women are ascendant, they are likely to experience the same growing pains as the Democrats. Because not everyone wants the same thing, it’s hard to march in lockstep, and harder still to break the chokehold of their party.
For Democrats who came in on a wave, it’s a reminder that democracy comes at a cost, and nothing is guaranteed.