GOP Sees Early Spike in Women Eyeing House Bids

Nearly 100 women have already expressed interest in running for Congress this cycle.

In this July 21, 2014 photo, Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, left, stands with his running mate Evelyn Sanguinetti, during a news conference in Chicago. The candidates for Illinois lieutenant governor don't just differ on policy issues, the Democratic former school executive and Republican councilwoman are playing starkly contrasting roles on the campaign trail. Gov. Pat Quinn's pick Paul Vallas recently has taken to Chicago events to criticize Republican Bruce Rauner's ideas and business record. while, Rauner's running mate Sanguinetti, tends to appear alongside the businessman, emphasizing her life story as the child of immigrants.
AP Photo/Stacy Thacker
March 28, 2019, 8 p.m.

Nearly three decades after her family fled communist Vietnam by boat, Janet Nguyen became the youngest person ever elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Then, in 2014, she broke a new record as the country's first Vietnamese-American state senator.

Evelyn Sanguinetti, who lives with multiple sclerosis and is the daughter of a Cuban refugee, was the first Latina lieutenant governor in the country when she was elected in 2014 with former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Nancy Mace was the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, a historic military college in South Carolina. Sara Weir, a Kansas native, has led the National Down Syndrome Society for four years.

In a potential coup for a national Republican party dominated by older white men, they are among dozens of women already considering runs for Congress on the GOP ticket in 2020.

"The majority of candidates we are talking to this cycle are women," said Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a leading recruiter for the party who sounded the alarm last year after the number of female House Republicans dropped from 23 to 13.

Already, about 95 women have spoken with the National Republican Congressional Committee or publicly expressed interest in running for Congress this cycle, according to Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, who chairs recruitment for the committee.

Drafting a more diverse group of candidates, including women and minorities, has become a priority for the NRCC and House leadership, who hope compelling nominees and a leftward shift by Democrats will entice moderate suburban voters back even in areas where President Trump is not popular.

"If I choose to run, I would be a great representative," said Nguyen, who could challenge Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in California's 48th District. "My family came from a communist government. We had no voice. Socialism is not something that we take very lightly."

The remaining GOP congresswomen and a constellation of outside groups—including the Republican Main Street Partnership, the Value in Electing Women PAC, and Winning for Women—are working in tandem to draft female candidates.

Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC, has talked with some 40 women weighing congressional runs and said 95 percent are looking at districts Republicans lost in 2018. And despite an abysmal midterm for the party, operatives involved in recruitment said many of these potential candidates found inspiration from watching last cycle.

"The upside to so many Democratic women being successful last cycle is that it demonstrated to Republican women that this is not an old-boys’ club anymore," Conway said.

Those Democrats were driven to run in no small part by Trump's 2016 election. His unpopularity among affluent, well-educated suburban voters, particularly women, propelled Democrats to victory in Republican strongholds, including Orange County and Texas.

But the early spike in Republican women weighing House bids indicates the president might not hamper 2020 recruitment. Female GOP strategists note that the party’s difficulties in electing women preceded Trump's rise.

"It’s just harder to convince them to run. It has nothing to do with Trump," said Sarah Chamberlain, the president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership. "Obviously in 2020, they’re going to be running with Trump on a ticket and, you know, they’re still doing it."

Chamberlain's polling on issues of importance to suburban women showed they were largely supportive of Trump's policies even if at times they "join the first lady in wishing he wouldn’t tweet quite as much." She is advising candidates to run on some of the party's legislative achievements and proposals that have gone unnoticed, such as the right-to-try law, which connects terminally ill patients with experimental therapies, and a push to expand Pell Grants.

Yet surveys show Trump with a massive gender gap in his job approval. A late January ABC News/Washington Post poll found 27 percent of women approve of the president, compared to 49 percent of men.

“If you decide to run as a Republican you are associated with the Republican Party, which is led by Donald Trump,” said Tyler Law, who was a top aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018. “It’s going to be very hard for women running as Republicans to separate themselves from an increasingly unpopular brand.”

And an influx of younger and more diverse candidates won't necessarily stem the GOP's bleeding in key suburban battlegrounds. Privately, some party strategists concede that several seats lost in 2018 will be tough to reclaim with Trump on the ballot.

Republican operatives are encouraged, however, at the prospect of running candidates like Weir, who recruiters say is considering a run against Rep. Sharice Davids in suburban Kansas City, and Sanguinetti, who could challenge Rep. Sean Casten in suburban Chicago. Hillary Clinton carried both seats in 2016.

In Orange County, Republicans are eyeing several Asian-American former and current female lawmakers in three seats with sizable populations of Korean- and Vietnamese-Americans. Besides Nguyen, other potential contenders include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, Yorba Linda City Councilwoman Peggy Huang, and Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman who ran and lost last cycle in California’s 39th District.

“Female candidates would certainly help Republicans perform better in the suburbs,” said Ken Spain, who worked at the NRCC in the 2010 cycle. "A female Republican candidate is always worth an extra 2 to 3 points in a race because you’re eating into Democratic strengths.

Most candidates are still in an exploratory phase, but a handful have launched campaigns. Former Republican Rep. Karen Handel declared a comeback bid for her suburban Atlanta seat this week. And Nicole Malliotakis, a former New York City mayoral candidate, is running in a Staten Island district lost last year by Republican Rep. Dan Donovan. He told the Republican Main Street Partnership he does not plan to run again.

High interest from female candidates is not wholly unexpected. The party didn't have trouble getting women to run in 2018, but it struggled to advance them beyond the primaries. All but one of those who did lost in the general.

But this cycle, recruiters said women are reaching out earlier, giving them more time to build a serious infrastructure. Allied groups plan to help boost them through crowded primaries and provide early funding. A leadership PAC started by Stefanik will also play a crucial role in publicizing female candidates and advising their campaigns.

Many prospective women candidates will have contested primaries; both Handel and Malliotakis are likely to face male rivals. But some could enter their races with key advantages in name recognition to help in the primary and unique profiles that could draw crossover votes in a general.

For example, Ashley Hinson, a state representative considering taking on freshman Rep. Abby Finkenauer in northeast Iowa, likely has high name ID from her time as a news anchor in Cedar Rapids.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, who is mulling a run in an open, suburban Atlanta seat, raised her stature this year by revealing herself as as a victim of sexual harassment when she fought GOP colleagues who wanted to make it more difficult to report such abuse in the state Senate.

And should these women choose to run, current female Republican members say they will find support among the GOP caucus.

"We're having a real internal discussion about supporting and promoting these women early," Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri said. "Elise and I have everybody’s attention on this."

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