It May Be the Year of the Woman, But Not for Female GOP Candidates

(Bloomberg) -- It’s the year of the woman, but that isn’t helping Republican candidates like Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

McMorris Rodgers, a member of the GOP’s House leadership team who represents a Washington state district that President Donald Trump won by 13 percentage points, is one of a handful of Republican women fighting to keep their seats as Democrats attempt to gain control of the House.

It May Be the Year of the Woman, But Not for Female GOP Candidates

A record number of women are running for office in the Nov. 6 elections, but that surge is mainly on the Democratic side, where candidates and voters are motivated by opposition to Trump, his treatment of women and the #MeToo movement.

“A lot of the opposition has been more focused on hatred of our president,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That is what’s been driving the left right now, is wanting to send a message to Donald Trump.”

There are 23 Republican women in the House now but only 17 are running for re-election. Of those, 13 are favored to win, according projections by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and the rest are in tight races. Another 35 Republican women who aren’t currently in Congress are seeking House seats, but most of them are in Democratic-leaning districts.

It May Be the Year of the Woman, But Not for Female GOP Candidates

If Republican women only win seats where they’re favored, there will be fewer of them in Congress. “For Republican woman, it’s not going to be a year of growth,” said Jean Sinzdak, an associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Female GOP incumbents at risk of losing include Representative Mia Love of Utah, in a toss-up contest for her Salt Lake City district, and Representative Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican in a race that leans Democratic.

Any losses would only further exacerbate the gender gap between the two parties. There are 84 women in the House, 23 are of whom are Republicans and 61 of whom are Democrats.

Of the 237 women who won House primaries this election cycle, 185 are Democrats and 52 are Republicans. While many Democratic women are also running in races they’re likely to lose, there are far more of them. That, combined with more favorable prospects for Democrats this year, means there could be more than a dozen new Democratic women in Congress.

Recruiting Women

Several factors are making it difficult for the GOP to close the gender gap with Democrats. Historic trends suggest the party in power loses seats during midterm elections, and Trump’s low approval ratings are a boost to Democrats. Demographics and party culture also play a role. More women identify as Democrats, and the party places more importance on diversity than the GOP.

Republicans, aware of the gender gap, have sought to recruit women candidates. This election cycle, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the House Republican recruitment chair, brought on 120 women to run.

McMorris Rodgers, 49, has also played a role in encouraging women to run, including Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican, and Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who previously worked on McMorris Rodgers’s legislative staff.

“I often find that a woman is more focused on their family, their business, their community activities and when they think about Congress they’re looking at it and think, ‘How do I fit this into my life?’” McMorris Rodgers said. Men are “quicker to say ‘yes, I’m going to drop everything and run for Congress.’”

She’s also been on the receiving end of recruitment efforts. Former House Speaker John Boehner said he encouraged McMorris Rodgers to run for her current role: chair of the House GOP conference, the party’s No. 4 leadership position in the chamber. Boehner said he encouraged her because she’s hardworking and smart -- and he wanted a woman in leadership.

“I thought having a woman in the Republican leadership was a good thing to do, and it brought a different perspective to the leadership table,” Boehner said.

GOP District

McMorris Rodgers was first elected to the eastern Washington district in 2004, replacing a retiring Republican, and has been re-elected ever since. The last Democrat to represent the district was former House Speaker Tom Foley, who lost in 1994.

In the district, which borders Canada and Oregon, McMorris Rodgers has been putting together a coalition of conservatives who see her as a Trump ally on economic issues and moderates who see her as willing to stand up to him, especially on trade and the environment.

She has had to find the right balance between embracing Trump’s policies and condemning his behavior. It’s a struggle shared by other GOP women running for office. McMorris Rodgers said she doesn’t like Trump’s coarse language but that the party is bigger than one person.

"I’ve had hundreds of women who have said that they don’t agree with those that are participating in the women’s march, or those that are protesting," McMorris Rodgers said in an interview on her campaign RV. "They believe in the principles of the Republican Party."

Missy Shorey, executive director of Maggie’s List, founded in 2010 to elect fiscally responsible conservative women, said McMorris Rodgers’s background as a mother of three informs her perspective. She has a son with Down’s syndrome and co-sponsored legislation that allows people to save tax-free for family members with disabilities.

"The Democrats are coming after her because they cannot tolerate the profile of a dynamic, gracious, proven woman leader who happens to be a fiscal conservative in power," Shorey said.

Touting Economy

McMorris Rodgers has focused her campaign on touting the economy and reduced regulations under the Trump administration. Trump endorsed McMorris Rodgers in a tweet on Monday, calling her "an incredible leader who is respected by everyone in Congress."

She’s being challenged by Democrat Lisa Brown, 62, a former chancellor at Washington State University in Spokane and the state’s first female Senate majority leader. She has criticized McMorris Rodgers’s support for the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare, for the administration’s rollbacks of environmental protections and lawmakers’ failure to overhaul immigration laws and pass a farm bill.

Brown is one of the strongest opponents McMorris Rodgers has faced since first being elected. Brown raised $5.3 million to McMorris Rodgers’s $5.5 million and had more cash on hand as of Oct. 17.

During the state’s August primary, in which all candidates competed for the top two slots, McMorris Rodgers led Brown by just 4 percentage points. Two Republican candidates and a pro-Trump independent split another 5 percent of the vote.

Brown said “independence from party” is a key issue in the race, and McMorris Rodgers has become “the person who delivers the talking points” for her party.

“In general, people are looking for more independence from the Trump administration, but in eastern Washington it’s the kind of district that is more independent from the political parties and values someone that will buck authority,” she said.

How well that argument works with voters remains to be seen.

Virginia Romine, a 66-year-old retired nurse from Waitsburg who attended a recent McMorris Rodgers town hall meeting, said she’d never vote for Trump and she finds some of his comments on women and minorities appalling. At the same time, she has repeatedly voted for McMorris Rodgers because she “puts eastern Washington first” and understands the district’s issues. She said having a woman in office makes a difference.

“Women are never going to be equal in the workplace until they’re equal in government, and we have very few women who’ve gone as high as Cathy has,” Romine said.

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