By Mattie Kahn February 20, 2019
Republicans elected one new woman to the House of Representatives in 2018. Rep. Elise Stefanik knows she has to help the GOP improve on that dismal number in 2020.
Elise Stefanik entered the House of Representatives in 2015. At the time, the Republican from New York was just 30 and the youngest woman ever elected to the chamber. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected at 29, has since beaten her record.)
With her win, Stefanik was supposed to herald a new kind of GOP candidate—energized, fresh, and female.
That didn’t happen.
In the recent midterm elections, just 13 Republican women—12 incumbents, onefreshman member—were elected to the House of Representatives. Compare that with the record 89 Democratic women, 35 of whom are new. “It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is eye-popping, and I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a problem that we need to fix,” said former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican in Florida who retired ahead of the 2018 race.
Ros-Lehtinen didn’t name them, but of course she means the men. Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate is awash in white men. The GOP lost the only black Republican woman ever elected to the House in November. The 116th Congress will have the lowest number of Republican women in its ranks in nearly three decades. Democrats tout their progressive policies on issues like paid leave and child care, in particular, to explain these numbers, but it’s no secret that millions of women still vote for Republicans. So what accounts for how few have put themselves forward in these races—and won?
Stefanik has seen the data and heard Ros-Lehtinen’s cries. In December she stepped down from the National Republican Congressional Committee and is relaunching her leadership PAC to recruit more women to compete in primaries. Minnesota representative Tom Emmer, who now serves as chairman of the NRCC, which tends not to intervene in primaries, called her
Here she tells Glamour how she thinks women’s representation in the GOP reached a “crisis level” and what she plans to do about it. (No, the answer is not “become a Democrat.”)
Glamour: You’ve used the words crisis level to talk about the number of Republican women who are in Congress. But you’ve also pointed out that this isn’t a problem that Donald Trump’s election created; the trend predates him. When did you realize this was an issue?
Rep. Elise Stefanik: Well, there are 435 members of Congress currently serving and only 13 of those members are Republican women. We have two female delegates: one from American Samoa, another one from Puerto Rico. So it’s 13 members, plus two delegates. That is about 3 percent of the body as a whole. That is unacceptable. That is not reflective of voters. It’s not reflective of the American public. After the election this year, when we first gathered as a Republican conference, I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but the room was so stark. I stood up and said, “Take a look around. We are at a crisis level. We only have 13 women. This is unacceptable.” That was really the moment when I decided that I was going to use my voice in a more dedicated way to advocate for an increase in the number of GOP women.
In terms of bona fides, what kinds of women are you looking to recruit?
I chaired recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee last April and I was the first woman to do it. What I found was this isn’t a recruitment problem. The problem is with not providing the support that nontraditional candidates needed. We had over 100 women who filed to run for Congress [for the 2018 election]. That’s the highest level ever. They filed to run as Republicans, and about half made it through their primaries. We only successfully elected one new woman. So the recruitment piece is not the challenge.
We still have to focus on encouraging women to raise their hand to run for office, but that’s just the first step. There’s a lot of infrastructure and support that needs to happen between filing to run for office and winning on Election Day. One of those is fund-raising. The Democratic Party has been very focused for decades on building an infrastructure to support Democratic women candidates. They have Emily’s List; they have a whole apparatus. Republicans have a few different groups that have grown over time, but they’re not as built out as Emily’s List.
What I want to do with my PAC is provide that early support, bundle dollars, and work with partner organizations. Candidate development and campaign strategy is also very important. A lot of times women haven’t run for office before, and this is their first time running. We saw that on the Democratic side, these candidates learn how to be very strong candidates headed into the general election. I want to provide a candidate development program where you help develop the campaign strategy, campaign budget, the campaign message for our top key Republican women candidates.
I ask about what kind of women you’re looking to recruit because former representative Mia Love lost her race in this last election, and she was the only black Republican woman in Congress. Is racial diversity something you’re paying attention to? Especially given that such a high percentage of black women vote for Democrats?
Yeah, absolutely. So again, when I chaired recruitment, my focus was on reaching out to nontraditional candidates. That means diversity not just in terms of women and men, but it means diversity in terms of ethnicity. It means diversity in terms of the geography of where you are in the country, whether you’re from a suburban or rural district. Mia Love is a huge loss. She was an incredibly important voice, and she’ll continue to be a strong voice.
There were a couple of other candidates who didn’t get a lot of media attention, who did come from diverse backgrounds, and who were very strong female Republican candidates. Young Kim would have been the first Republican Korean American candidate. She ran in California in one of the toughest races and came close, but she lost. Lea Marquez Peterson, a Hispanic American woman, ran in Arizona and lost. Again, not just a woman candidate, but a diverse female candidate. So I have a record of recruiting those candidates and I think that is important. It’s important not just to have women, but to have nontraditional candidates.
That kind of recruitment requires deep investment from Republican leadership, though. I’m wondering whether you feel like, in general, male conservative leadership understands that having more women is in fact an asset. Is this something that they genuinely want, not just for optics?
I am making this case to them privately in individual conversations and publicly. I do have to say that two of the biggest supporters that I had from the beginning were Steve Scalise [of Louisiana], who’s the House minority whip, and Kevin McCarthy [of California], who’s the House minority leader. Those members of the leadership team as well as Rep. Liz Cheney [of Wyoming] have been very supportive.
I know that there were lots of stories about Rep. Tom Emmer when he said it was a mistake [to recruit women to compete in primaries]. He has since realized and listened that that was not the right statement to make. We have to understand we have a problem and promote more Republican women. And then when they get to Congress, we need to elevate their voices.
What points resonate as you make the case for this investment—is it about pure representation, as in “the Republican Party should look like the country”? Is it about the fact that suburban women’s support for Trump seems to be dwindling and the hope that an emphasis on women could shore up some of that support? How is the conversation playing out?
I think the framing for these men is “We think Elise is right. We need to focus more on this as a party and we want to support this initiative.” Men in leadership understand the importance of diversity in the party, the importance of winning young voters, winning diverse voters, winning suburban voters. I think they’ve listened. They understand this needs to be a priority.
When Sen. Susan Collins was thinking of running for governor in Maine, then Sen. Heidi Heitkamp sent a text to her that said, in short, “Please don’t.” Heitkamp wanted a woman on the other side of the aisle to be her partner on some of the issues that they were working on. Have Democratic women reached out and said, “Great job. We would love to have more Republican women to work with us on some of these issues, whether that’s health care or child care or education”?
Yes. I have heard from women across the aisle, and I’ve heard from them publicly. I appreciate it. Cheri Bustos [of Illinois] who is head of the DCCC, which is the campaign arm for the Democratic Party, has said that she believes it is important for there to be more women in Congress and that means more women in both parties. I have felt very encouraged by my colleagues on my side of the aisle, but also women on the Democratic side, and I think that speaks to the broader point of why having women in elected office is so important. We tend to be more bipartisan. We tend to be legislative workhorses who want to get our work done, not run to our separate corners.
Four Democratic women senators are now in the race for president, and these are women who are considered front-runners, which is a milestone just in terms of representation alone. Do you ever feel lonely as a conservative woman in a time when your ranks are so diminished?
I do not. I think about [former U.N. Ambassador] Nikki Haley and Sen. Martha McSally [of Arizona]. Sen. Susan Collins is on the ballot in the Senate. We have amazing women. Our stories tend not to get told in the media as much as Democratic female candidates. And that’s something I also want to change, but I feel very much at home with my female colleagues on the Republican side. I just want to increase those numbers. I think overall it’s good to have as many female role models as possible, regardless of what your political ideology is.
From the 2016 election until now, have there been flash points, especially related to gender and sexism, that have made you question your place in the party?
I have a very independent record from President Trump. I have spoken out against his rhetoric regarding women, and I have disagreed on some of his policy decisions. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was overwhelmingly reelected this past cycle, which was a really tough cycle in the Northeast for Republicans.
As I’ve said, the issue the Republican Party has had with women voters predates President Trump. I think it’s been magnified with this administration, and I do think some of the rhetoric has had an impact. We saw that at the polls in 2018. But I am a Republican and I’m hoping to help define the Republican Party as we head toward the future. But I worked on the Romney-Ryan campaign in 2012, and we lost single professional women ages 18 to 30 by over 30 points. That is a problem, and it’s going to continue after this administration. We have to rebuild our coalition.
Have those returns ever made you question your policies on issues like reproductive choice or equal pay? Has the decline with this demographic in particular ever caused a kind of a crisis of confidence?
It hasn’t caused a crisis of confidence for me. It’s emboldened me to use my voice and help the direction of not only how the party talks about issues, but also what our policy proposals are. I have always been a Republican. I am a strong Republican, and I have a strong record in my district of making a case for why limited government, why strong national security, why equal opportunity is the best model for the future of the country. I’ve won not just Republican voters, but independents and Democrats. I’ve not had a crisis of confidence. It has become crystal clear to me that I am a unique voice among my colleagues that I serve with, and I want to utilize my voice to help us improve governing on behalf of the country.
Mattie Kahn is a senior editor at Glamour. This interview has been edited and condensed.