ST. PAUL — Two years after women swept the midterm elections in record numbers — dubbing 2018 the new “Year of the Woman” — female candidates this November beat their own record once again and a record-high class of congresswomen will be on Capitol Hill come January.
This year’s gain in female representation came from a boost in female Republican candidates, earning 2020 a new nickname: the “Year of the Republican Woman.” Female representation on the Hill come January will have increased from 2018’s 127 to 141, according to Rutgers University’s Center for Women in Politics (CAWP). That net gain of 14 female congresswomen is represented entirely by Republican women, and for the first time in history, more than 25% of sitting congress members will be women.
Minnesota’s own Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach is one of those 14 seats picked up by women this year. By a double-digit margin, she unseated longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson in the rural Congressional District 7. In a column she wrote for The Hill, Fischbach celebrated her and other Republican women’s victories at the ballot box, and said stereotypes that “the Republican Party is not a party for women” are “incredibly untrue.”
She also credited women and candidates of color for the Republican party’s gains in the U.S. House, noting that, “Incredibly, every Democrat-held seat that Republicans flipped was won by a candidate who is either a woman or a minority.”
“This year’s historic gains prove that voters around the country want women to represent them and work for them,” she said. “This is a great sign of things to come.”
It is true, though, that Republican women remain a minority in Congress — even after this year’s historic gains.
The 36-member class of Republican women heading to Washington in January is a new record for the party, up from 2018’s 22 Republican congresswomen. While Democrats did not increase their female representation at the ballot box this year — keeping steady at 105 — there will still be nearly three times as many Democratic women in Congress than Republican.
Part of the hurdle for Republican women to overcome is in some of the party’s own ideology and strategy: At a 2019 lecture at the University of Minnesota, CAWP researcher Kelly Dittmar said Republican leadership often rejects identity politics, which makes it harder to target female candidates for campaigning and fundraising based on their gender alone. Democratic women, meanwhile, have benefited from gender-specific fundraising PACs for years.
"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,” she said.
But it was that exact targeting that proved to be a winning strategy for the party this cycle: Behind Fischbach and 11 other successful female Republican candidates was New York Republican U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, whose newly established Elevate PAC specifically backs female Republicans. Fischbach wrote that in addition to Elevate PAC, her campaign was backed by women-specific fundraisers Winning for Women, Maggie’s List and VIEW PAC.
Of Minnesota’s incoming four-member Republican congressional delegation, Fischbach is the only woman. With Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith having won her reelection in November, both of Minnesota's U.S. senators will remain Democratic women, and three of Minnesota's four U.S. representatives — U.S. Reps. Angie Craig, Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar — are women. Neither of the Dakotas are represented by any women in Congress, from either side of the aisle.
Within Republican women’s increased 36-member congressional caucus, there is still a lack of racial diversity. According to CAWP, just five members of the 117st Congress will be Republican women of color. That’s less than 14% of Republican women, and less than 1% of all of Congress. By comparison, 46 Democratic congresswomen-elect are women of color, representing nearly 44% of Democratic women and nearly 9% of all of Congress.
In her own column for The Hill, CAWP Executive Director Debbie Walsh implored political leaders on both sides of the aisle “to take advantage of the momentum” for women candidates that broke records two election cycles in a row “until 50 percent no longer seems like some distant, unattainable future.”
"Women, after all, are more than 50 percent of the population of the United States,” she wrote.