Native Texan and former Capitol Hill staffer Jenifer Sarver had long dreamed of winning a seat in Congress. So when Rep. Lamar Smith, her congressman of 31 years, announced his retirement, she knew it was her shot.
“It certainly happened at a political moment where my voice as a center-right Republican, I think, is thoroughly lacking in the discourse,” said Sarver, who now works as a communications strategist. “And, obviously, we need more women in the Republican Party.”
Eighteen challengers ended up crowding into the Republican primary for Texas’ deeply conservative 21st Congressional District, and Sarver lost the nomination. Her story is far from unique: Despite all the talk of the so-called “pink wave” of women crashing into the 2018 midterms, few GOP women managed to surf it.
While a record-breaking 182 Democratic women secured nominations for seats in the U.S. House, just 52 Republican women did the same, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Ultimately, only 13 Republican women have so far won seats in the House, compared to 89 Democratic women.
Republicans’ last chance to elect a non-incumbent woman of color into the House also died this weekend, when California Democrat Gil Cisneros defeated Republican Young Kim, who would’ve become the first Korean-American congresswoman. The GOP elected just one woman to its freshman House class, a fact thrown into sharp relief last week, when a flyer bearing the beaming, overwhelmingly white faces of the Republican members circulated around Capitol Hill.
Ultimately, the number of Republican women will in fact drop during the next session of Congress, even as the number of women in Congress overall will rise to a historic number.
“It’s a five-alarm fire. The party won’t survive. It just won’t if this continues.”
“It’s a five-alarm fire,” Rina Shah, a Republican strategist, said of Republican women’s fate in the midterms. “The party won’t survive. It just won’t, if this continues.”
“The numbers are just devastating, when you look at the diversity of the Democratic caucus and the lack of diversity in the Republican caucus,” Sarver added, and a stark signal to women wondering where they fit into the GOP. “You look at the numbers, and you’re like, ‘Well, there isn’t a place for me in this party.’”
Of course, Republicans of all genders fared poorly across the board, as midterm elections historically favor whatever party isn’t in the White House. (Democrats have so far flipped 37 House seats, though they lost ground in the Senate.) But the Republican women who spoke with VICE News say the GOP’s struggle to attract women candidates is a longtime issue that predates President Donald Trump. While he certainly complicated Republican women’s runs for office this year, his attitude and actions toward women merely threw gasoline on the flames.
“It’s such a big part of the culture of the Democratic Party to value women running for office, and that’s nonexistent in the Republican Party,” said Jennifer Pierotti Lim, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, which aims to elect moderate conservative women. “The GOP still seems to not realize that you have to get away from your discomfort of talking about identity politics and address the fact that Republican women have very unique challenges to running for office that aren’t being addressed.”
“It’s such a big part of the culture of the Democratic Party to value women running for office, and that’s nonexistent in the Republican Party.”
A panoply of outside groups work specifically to elect liberal women, such as EMILY’s List, which recruits and endorses Democratic, abortion rights-supporting women up and down the ballot and, at more than 30 years old, is now one of the grand-dame power brokers of the Democratic Party. The group, which said it raised and spent more than $110 million on the midterms, supported at least 23 women who flipped seats in the U.S. House — enough to give the Democratic Party the majority in the House.
No such group for Republican women has managed to harness that kind of firepower. When VICE News reached out via email to the conservative Maggie’s List, the email bounced. The head of Maggie’s List didn’t return a VICE News voicemail asking for comment for this story.
That lack of congressional representation can also have a down-ballot effect on conservative women mulling a run for local office. “When you don’t have these organizations in place, you don’t have women that are in office and that are running and that are serving as role models to other women,” said Meghan Milloy, who is also a co-founder of Republican Women for Progress.
On Nov. 6, Election Day — which saw women prefer Democratic candidates by unprecedented margins — South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News, “We’ve got to address the suburban women problem, because it’s real.” California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who was recently elected to serve as Republicans’ leader in the House, has also conceded, “We can do better in recruitment, and that's what I'm excited about doing.”
But New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who headed up the GOP’s candidate recruitment this year, told the Washington Post that she asked McCarthy during his run for leadership how he planned to improve that recruitment. “I was struck that I really didn’t get an answer,” she said.
“I don’t think the Republican Party has been honest about countering it at all,” Shah said. “I just don’t trust that those in positions of power have the ability to see that and take an honest swipe at correcting. They need some fresh new energy and ideas.”
A few days after the 2018 midterms, Shah moderated a New York City panel of Republican women for Vote Run Lead, a group that aims to get more women of all political persuasions into elected office, to discuss what shape those ideas could take. That panel, which Sarver also participated in, seemed at times uneasy, as the panelists perhaps sensed that the overwhelmingly female attendees appeared to lean liberal. (Hours later, the crowd would go wild for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s widely seen as a potential contender 2020 contender for Democrats.) But the women on the dias were firm: They weren’t switching teams.
“I’ve reviewed the tenets of the Democratic Party, and I don’t agree,” Sarver told VICE News. “My choice has been to stay in the [Republican] Party and absolutely work to change the party.”
But Sarver said that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be open to one day joining a third party. In an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, Susanna Dokupil, who ran for the Texas state legislature this cycle and received Gov. Greg Abbott’s endorsement over her incumbent opponent, echoed Sarver, calling herself “about as Republican as it gets.” Her op-ed, however, also bore the ominous title, “Are educated women welcome in the Republican Party?”
“Neither party is speaking to people like me who want to rein in government spending, reduce waste, and create kind communities at the same time,” Dokupil told VICE News in an email. “Many educated women (and men) value a kind, inclusive community more than tax cuts, so if they can’t have both, they vote Democrat.”
Cristina Osmeña, who ran as the Republican nominee for California’s 14th Congressional District and also spoke on the Vote Run Lead panel, believes that the lack of Republican women should also trouble Democratic women. Politics tends to be cyclical, she pointed out, and if the GOP is primarily made up of men, when they once again win power, that means the party in charge will be primarily men.
“If they’re dominated by men, it’s going to be a certain kind of government,” she told VICE News. “And, you know, the people who lose in that are women.”
Cover: From left, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., speak to the media following the House GOP leadership elections in the Longworth House Office Building on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. (Photo: CQ Roll Call via AP Images)