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Record Number Of Republican Women Elected To The New Congress


All right, switching gears now - for the second session in a row, there will be a record number of women in Congress this January. They'll fill more than one-quarter of congressional seats, and that growth is being driven by Republican victories. But as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, women will still be vastly underrepresented in the GOP.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Minnesota's sprawling rural 7th Congressional District has been represented by conservative Democrat Collin Peterson for 30 years. This year, Republicans succeeded in flipping it when Michelle Fischbach won it by 13 points. In talking about how she won, Fischbach mentioned one particular congresswoman, New York Representative Elise Stefanik.

MICHELLE FISCHBACH: Whenever advice was needed, I always was able to call and talk to her about, you know, whatever kinds of bumps or things you would run into. But in addition to that, she provided fundraising and dollars to the campaign, which is so important.

KURTZLEBEN: Stefanik was in charge of recruitment for House Republicans in 2018, an abysmal year for GOP women. Shortly after the midterms, she clashed with National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer when he said he didn't think the party should play a role in primaries. She also started her own committee, EPAC, dedicated to boosting women like Fischbach. Now a record number of Republican women are going to Congress. And while Stefanik credits the candidates with their wins...

ELISE STEFANIK: What I believe is different this cycle is I publicly made this a priority for the Republicans I serve with in Congress. I very publicly said at the end of the midterms in 2018 that we needed to do better.

KURTZLEBEN: Even while setting a new record, the party is set to have around one-third the number of women Democrats will have in Congress next session. Republicans will also have around one-tenth Democrats' number of women of color. In that light, University of Virginia political science professor Jennifer Lawless explains why she thinks GOP women's success this year is important.

JENNIFER LAWLESS: It's a big deal in that the Republicans have demonstrated that when they make some effort to recruit female candidates, they see an increase in women's representation. But we haven't not known that. Since the 1980s, when women run for office, whether as Democrats or Republicans, we know that they're as likely as men to win elections.

KURTZLEBEN: Republican women have run in recent years among partisan demographic realignment, with the GOP appealing less to women - and particularly college-educated women - and more to men. That has changed which women run and how they run, says Republican pollster Christine Matthews.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: As increasingly college-educated women and men are leaving the Republican Party to becoming more rural, more noncollege educated, male, older, one way to appeal to that type of electorate is not anymore to be the Chamber of Commerce, you know, Republican woman but to be the Second Amendment Republican woman.

KURTZLEBEN: Among the women who won this year are Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, who not only ran on opposition to gun control but have, in the past, expressed support of the baseless, far-right conspiracy theory QAnon. Promoting women politicians in particular can mean walking a tricky line in the GOP. Republican voters often say they are just voting for the best candidate regardless of gender or race. NRCC chair Emmer echoed that when NPR asked if celebrating women's wins qualifies as so-called identity politics.

TOM EMMER: These people are not going to be great representatives just because of their gender or their race. These are people with incredible backgrounds.

KURTZLEBEN: For her part, Stefanik believes she's proven something to her party leadership.

STEFANIK: I was really proud that Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise and many of my male colleagues embraced this effort, including Tom Emmer, who learned pretty quickly that it's important to prioritize recruitment of women candidates and nontraditional candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: Growing those numbers in the future, she said, will mean investing in those women as well as candidates of color, young and veteran candidates, while defending the seats they won this year.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHVRCHES' "THE MOTHER WE SHARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.