ST PAUL — In 2018's midterm elections, across the country women ran for and were elected to public office in record numbers. Currently, there are more women serving in state legislatures, statewide offices and U.S. Congress than ever before.
In the Midwest, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem snagged the title of South Dakota's first female governor. Minnesota's Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan became the first woman of color elected to statewide office, and the second Native American woman ever elected to statewide office nationwide.
Some dubbed the year the "Pink Wave." What this year was decidedly not was red — at least not for women.
According to a recently released report on the 2018 election from Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, the gains women made in 2018's midterms "were concentrated among Democratic women at every level of office." On the right side of the aisle, the number of Republican women in office declined in state legislatures, statewide executive offices and in the U.S. House nationwide from 2018 to 2019.
Decades prior to 2018's "Pink Wave," 1992 was dubbed "The Year of the Woman" when Americans elected more women to Congress than in any previous election. Upon 1993's swearing-in, 54 women, 40 Democrats and 14 Republicans, had taken their oaths of office.
Twenty-six years later, 126 women in 2019 — more than twice as many than in 1993 — hold seats in Congress. But the gains are mostly concentrated among Democratic women, whose representation increased by 163% between 1993 and 2019. Among Republican women in the same years, representation increased 50%.
Female Republican representation peaked during the 109th Congress between 2005 and 2007, and has trended downward since.
Speaking at the University of Minnesota on Thursday, Nov. 21, CAWP's Kelly Dittmar said she sees a "disparity in support infrastructure" as the reason for Republican women's disproportionate representation. She said resources like targeted recruitment, training and fundraising are especially helpful for women, who have historically been pushed out of politics and have a higher hurdle to clear in the path to victory than men.
Compared to Democrats, campaign resources tailored to Republican women are few and far between. Fundraising PACs for Republican women, for instance, rake in less money than big-name Democratic women's PACs. Just one example is Emily's List, a PAC for female Democratic candidates, which the Federal Election Commission reports raised nearly $14 million in the first 10 months of 2019.
Dittmar said targeted support for female candidates can also run counter to major Republican ideologies.
"You have Republican leadership saying, 'We don't play identity politics. Identity politics are bad,'" Dittmar said. "So it's really hard to reconcile a targeted effort toward recruiting and supporting women with the ideological point that has been made in the party, that we don't want to get into that. We want to just choose the best candidate."
It's a fine line to walk for female Republican candidates, too. Republican South Dakota state Rep. Scyller Borglum announced her congressional challenge to U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., earlier this year. She said Republican women "don't run and say, 'Vote for me because I'm a woman.' "
"What I will say is, by being a woman and running for office, I most certainly can serve as a voice to the other half that I’m not convinced have been getting much attention," she said. "I can represent all of South Dakota, as opposed to just representing half."
While running for governor, Noem rarely, if ever, acknowledged the historic nature of her then-potential governorship. Only one campaign ad during the 2018 election cycle made mention of her gender, and it was paid for by the state's Republican Party, not by her campaign.
Noem's move was intentional. Colleagues said she wanted South Dakota to elect her based on her merits, not her gender.
After her election, however, she acknowledged the weight of her legacy during her January 2019 inaugural address.
“It is a distinct honor to serve as our state’s first woman governor, first and foremost because of the message it sends to our state's girls and young women, but really boys and young men as well," she said.
Dittmar said it's difficult to measure the impact that role models can have on young people, but agreed that seeing women in public leadership is valuable to young people "so that we don't get to a point where they're doubting whether or not a woman is electable in public office, that it becomes normalized."
And role models help not only young people, but adult women currently seeking office, who Dittmar said often need guidance in navigating "this institution which all women know has been biased against them." Current female officeholders can help provide that, she said.
No women, Democratic or Republican, currently represent either of the Dakotas' three respective seats — all held by Republicans — in U.S. Congress. Prior to being elected governor, Noem served as South Dakota's at-large U.S. representative for eight years. North Dakota's Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp lost her reelection in 2018.
Both of Minnesota's U.S. Sens., Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are female Democrats. All three of the state's Republican U.S. representatives are male. Three of Minnesota's five Democratic U.S. representatives are female.
That could change in 2020, though: Former-Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach is making a run for Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, currently occupied by longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. Republicans are eyeing D7, which voted for President Donald Trump by a 30-point margin in 2016, as a major flip opportunity in 2020.
Fischbach, who has already received endorsements from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and state leadership, could be the one to push Republicans over the finish line next year. Fischbach has made history before: In 2011, she became Minnesota's first female state Senate president.
She downplayed the historical significance of her position at the time, saying she hoped that being a woman would not make a difference.