Last month, Dr. Joan Perry was trounced by Dr. Greg Murphy by nearly 20 points in a special Republican primary election in North Carolina. The race made national headlines, exposing a gender rift within the GOP. Perry was backed by all 13 women members of the House Republican conference and $900,000 from Winning For Women (WFW) Action Fund, a new effort to boost the ranks of Republican women in the House. Murphy was backed by much of the party establishment, including the leadership of the House Freedom Caucus.
The North Carolina primary raised an existential question for the GOP: Is there is room for anything but white male leadership within it? For a range of reasons—from near-term political to entrenched, hard-to-change cultural attitudes—Republicans, a party led overwhelmingly by white men, will have an increasingly hard time attracting voting majorities.
Diversity has never been a strength of the modern-day GOP. Over the last several cycles, Republican Party leaders have prioritized manipulating the electorate in their favor, through gerrymandering and voter suppression, over broadening representation and reach.
But in the wake of recent losses, some Republicans are sounding the alarm. Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) referred to the 2018 midterms as a “stark wake-up call.” The ranks of Republican women shrank from from 705 to 662 in state legislatures and from 23 to 13 in the House, comprising a disproportionate number of overall House Republican losses. And Republican women won primaries at lower rates than their Democratic counterparts (44 percent versus 53 percent, respectively). Earlier this year, Stefanik relaunched Elevate PAC (E-PAC), which invests early in Republican women candidates. Along with WFW Action Fund, E-PAC is part of an emerging conservative infrastructure dedicated to the recruitment, training, and primary endorsements of women candidates.
Progressive organizations, most notably Emily’s List, have deployed such strategies to great effect. But Republicans are going to have a hard time training and endorsing themselves out of their current predicament. In part it’s because party leadership doesn’t seem interested. Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded to the E-PAC relaunch with: “If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right.… But I think that’s a mistake.” Only eight men in the House Republican Conference endorsed Perry. Conservative heavyweights like Sean Hannity and Rudy Giuliani lent their considerable multimedia reach to Murphy, with Giuliani recording robo calls on his behalf and Hannity tweeting out his endorsement.
The problem is not just the opposition of leading conservative men. The decline of Republican women in elective office, the vast majority of whom are white, also mirrors broader shifts in voting patterns. White women have voted reliably Republican for decades. But their support is increasingly fragile. According to Catalist, a progressive data company, college-educated white women swung Democratic by 10 points from 2016 to 2018, and non-college-educated white women swung Democratic by seven points. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that both groups of white women favored a generic Democrat over Trump by margins of 33 and six points, respectively. The pool of women willing to embrace the Republican brand is shrinking.
This is for substantive reasons. The GOP has invested so heavily in white-male identity politics that the policies that have become its Trump-era signatures—family separation, draconian abortion bans—are widely unpopular with the American public and profoundly alienating to many of the white independent and moderate women who have historically voted Republican. Recent data from the Voter Study Group revealed that one in five Republicans has “economically left” policy preferences, with particular concern for Social Security and Medicare. Two-thirds of these voters are women.
The Republicans’ white woman problem is also cultural, rooted in male tribalism. Much of the Republican primary electorate that remains is so pro-Trump that they don’t trust women candidates to be sufficiently aligned with the president. In the North Carolina race, Murphy attacked Perry, who ran as a pro-life Christian, for her initial reluctance to support Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border. Many North Carolina primary voters questioned whether Perry was sufficiently hard-core. A new poll by Supermajority/Perry Undem found that only 23 percent of voters who oppose abortion in most or all instances—the core Republican base—believe that the lack of women in political office affects women’s equality.
The Republican base that has coalesced around Trump has been increasingly characterized by “hostile sexism”—antagonistic attitudes toward women that stem from a belief that women want to control men. Hostility toward women was a major factor predicting support for Trump in 2016—the first year it played a large and significant role in a presidential election—among Republican men and women alike. “I vote for brains, not boobs,” Amy Kremer, the co-founder of Women for Trump said in discussing her endorsement of Murphy over Perry. Hostile sexism is not limited to Republicans. But its prominence within the Trump-aligned GOP base suggests that Republican women candidates will have a heavy lift for the foreseeable future.
The leaders of the GOP’s efforts to recruit women maintain that they haven’t had sufficient time to have an appreciable effect. The mostly Democratic 2018 “year of the woman” occurred more than three decades after the founding of Emily’s List. But this doesn’t add up. Conservatives have had a long-standing advantage in political talent development. The right invests tens of millions annually in an expansive network of organizations training conservative leaders, many of them women, and supports them throughout their career. It’s how we got Ann Coulter and Tomi Lahren.
But it’s one thing to give a few women a megaphone; it’s quite another to position many women candidates to prevail when the Republican electorate is ginned up on misogyny. Democrats face challenges of their own when it comes to shifting representation—and, more fundamentally, power—to a next generation of leaders from historically marginalized communities. But progressive efforts to broaden political representation (which, in addition to Emily’s List and Emerge for women, include organizations designed to elect black, Latinx, Asian American/Pacific Islander, immigrant, millennial/Gen Z, and LGBTQ leaders) are trying to get their elected leadership to more closely resemble their voting base. Republicans, meanwhile, are caught in a kind of political death spiral: catering to a narrowing electorate that elects conservative white men who then deploy rhetoric and advance policies that further narrow the electorate.
Efforts to elect more Republican women are trying to thread the finest of needles: acknowledging the importance of diversity and inclusion, but only to a very limited degree. Programs to bolster Republican women’s leadership have almost exclusively endorsed white candidates. This reflects conservatives’ broader reality. All but one of the 47 women of color currently serving in Congress are Democrats, as are 96 percent of women of color state legislators.
At core, both race and gender present challenges for Republicans. There are currently two black Republican members of Congress, and one—Representative Will Hurd of Texas—recently announced his retirement. Trump’s cabinet, federal appointees, and judicial nominees are the whitest and most male in three decades. Despite the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 “autopsy” report that urged the party to engage with communities of color, Republicans, some through amplification and some through silent acquiescence, have doubled down on Trump’s racism and xenophobia.
It is likely, because of the way our maps are drawn, that Republicans will squeak out additional electoral victories by leaning in to explicitly white-male politics. But over the long run, it’s hard to view a party so defined by minority rule as destined for anything other than self-immolation.
Some conservatives, like Jennifer Rubin, are calling for that deeper shift. “The only plausible path at this point is to crush the Republican Party so resoundingly at every level that it is forced to abandon Trumpism, recruit an entirely different generation of leadership and devise an agenda that is not based on right-wing nationalism.” Recently, former California Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes launched New Way, an effort designed to move the state Republican Party to the center, thwarting a “slide toward irrelevancy.” New Way is explicitly pro-immigrant, repudiating xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy.
It is this handful of conservative outliers who understand that the Republicans’ white woman problem won’t be solved by a few new recruiting and endorsement programs—and that their white woman problem is actually something much broader. Fundamentally, if the GOP hopes to see more Republican women in office—and stay competitive for the long haul—the party will have to grapple with its policies and culture, built by and for white men, and designed to keep them in power.