A record number of women will serve in the next Congress
(CNN) -- The day after South Carolina's longtime Republican 1st District flipped blue in 2018, Nancy Mace's 9-year-old daughter had a question.
"Hey mommy, when are we going to go after this seat?" she asked Mace, who had just won reelection to the state House.
Last week, Mace defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham, becoming one of a record number of women who will serve in the 117th Congress — and a record number of Republican women who will serve in the House.
With races still to be called, at least 141 women will serve in Congress next year, breaking the record of 127 set in 2019, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That includes at least 116 women in the House — smashing the record of 102 also set in 2019 — and 25 in the Senate, although that number could shrink with California Sen. Kamala Harris' ascendancy to the vice presidency. The total in the House includes a woman from Iowa's 2nd District, where two women are running against each other, but because CNN has yet to call the race, it's not known which party will represent the district.
Four of the nine Republican women in the Senate were vulnerable in this year's elections, but only Arizona Sen. Martha McSally was defeated, while appointed Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler's fate will be determined in a January runoff.
The only non-incumbent woman elected to the Senate is a Republican: former Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
There will be at least six new women of color in Congress — four Democrats and two Republicans — including Democrats Cori Bush, who will be Missouri's first Black congresswoman, and Nikema Williams, who was elected to the late Rep. John Lewis' seat in Georgia. Based on the races CNN has called, there will be at least two more women of color overall than in the 116th Congress, for a total of 50 so far, in the 117th Congress.
But the majority of the 24 non-incumbent women joining Congress in January are White, including 13 Republicans and five Democrats. At least 91 White women will serve in the 117th Congress, up from 79 this year.
The success of GOP women in the House
The upward trend in women overall in the House is a bipartisan story. Democratic women were largely responsible for flipping the House in 2018, setting a new record by electing 35 non-incumbent women. This year, though, it's Republican women who have made significant gains. After electing only one new Republican woman to the House in the midterms, Republicans this year have elected at least 15 non-incumbent women.
That means the number of Republican women in the House will at least double. (Currently there are only 13 women in the House GOP conference, and two of them did not run for reelection.) Democrats are adding nine new women, which balances out those they lost to defeat and retirement, increasing their numbers to 89 for now.
"Republican women are still going to be extremely underrepresented," said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics. "This year they were really making up for losses," she added, noting that this time two years ago, there were 23 GOP women.
Whereas Democratic women have long been boosted by the pro-abortion rights group EMILY's List, which stands for "Early Money is Like Yeast," Republicans have lacked comparable infrastructure to invest in female candidates. There's also been an ideological opposition to playing in primaries, especially in any way that would invoke identity politics.
That attitude, at least, began to shift after 2018, when New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who had recruited more than 100 women as head of recruitment for the House GOP campaign arm, only to see one of them win, publicly sounded the alarm. She relaunched her leadership PAC for the sole purpose of playing in primaries to help women, which the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee called "a mistake" at the time. But while the campaign committee still does not play in primaries, its leadership acknowledged it had to do better electing diverse candidates — rallying behind another woman, Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, as the head of recruitment for 2020 — and now proudly touting female candidates' success this year.
But by far the biggest reason for that success is that more Republican women raised their hands to run than ever before — in part because they saw what Democratic women did in 2018 — and more of them won primaries, which has traditionally been the biggest hurdle.
"Women around the country have watched other women before them be successful and realize, 'Hey, I can do it,'" said Iowa GOP Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson, who last week defeated Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, one of the women who flipped a district in 2018.
"It was the perfect storm. We had competitive seats that were winnable and we had incredible women in those districts with prior legislative experience and who knew how to put a campaign together," said Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW (or Value in Electing Women) PAC, which has helped elect GOP women to Congress since 1997.
Just as Democratic women were in 2018, Republican women this year were well-positioned to take advantage of a favorable environment. "The only way that could have happened was if it was a better-than-expected year for Republicans, right, and I think it was," Dittmar said of the gains GOP women were able to make.
"Being the first Republican woman elected to Congress in the state of South Carolina is deeply humbling," Mace said. "It reminds me that Democratic women do not hold a monopoly on breaking glass ceilings."
New voices in Congress
Even with women in Congress breaking records, they will likely represent just over a quarter of the legislative branch. Obstacles remain — both to women running and winning.
Women candidates often receive questions their male colleagues do not — like who's going to take care of their kids. For Hinson, out door knocking in her Iowa district, that was a moment to reflect on why she was running in the first place. "The lady at the door, she thought I should be at home with my children. And I basically said, 'Well, I'm setting a good example for them.'"
The elected women agree the perspectives they bring to Congress are wanted — and needed.
"They picked me this time, they know that I'm a mom, I drive a minivan, you know, we have a regular life here in Iowa," said Hinson, a state representative and former journalist who thinks her communication skills will help her in Congress.
Rep.-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux, the only Democrat who has so far flipped a competitive GOP-held district this year, won in the northeast Atlanta suburbs that are now the epicenter of the political battleground with the Senate majority hinging on two Georgia Senate seats.
A professor and former budget director for the Georgia state Senate, Bourdeaux first ran two years ago, coming up 433 votes short in a recount against the GOP incumbent who decided not to run again in 2020. "Many people here didn't even know that there were Democrats in their neighborhood," she said of the groundwork that that initial race laid.
"A lot of women were very much galvanized by Donald Trump, and their concerns over the direction of the country, and the loss of really basic rights -- reproductive rights -- that all of a sudden was on the ballot in a way that it was not before. So being a woman, I think, was helpful in speaking to those issues," Bourdeaux said.
Mace, the South Carolina Republican, finds herself at the opposite end of the political spectrum, but she too feels strongly about bringing her perspective to the House.
After dropping out of high school, she worked as a waitress at a Waffle House. In 1996, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in a decision that required the Virginia Military Institute, a state-funded school, to accept women. "That decision literally changed my life," said Mace, who became the first woman to graduate from the Citadel.
"Freshman year at the Citadel was a lot like running for Congress," she said, noting the challenges and the significance of both achievements -- and the way gender impacted her experience.
"I mean, you can be tough, but you can't be a B-I-T-C-H, right? There's a boundary there as a female candidate that you can only be so tough before you cross that line and people start judging you in a different way."
As a state lawmaker, Mace earned headlines for speaking publicly about her own experience of rape when advocating for an amendment to an anti-abortion measure that would include exceptions for rape and incest.
"The ability to stand up against members of your own party, even when it's leadership, especially now more than ever is more important to voters," Mace said.
Many of the Republican women who won this year were in competitive districts. Republicans have flipped eight Democrat-held seats, according to CNN projections so far, and women have delivered all but one of those wins. That means they're likely to face difficult reelections in the future, possibly against Democratic women.
That worries Conway of VIEW PAC, who fears that Democratic and Republican women will continue knocking each other out in the most competitive seats every two years. "The whole idea of having 'girl seats' does not get us any closer to parity," she said.
A record 643 women ran for Congress in 2020 — 583 for the House and 60 for the Senate. That's double the number of women who ran in 2016, though it has not yet translated to twice as many seats.
That is in part because as more women run for office, they are also more often running against each other, both in primaries and general elections. In 2016, women ran against each other in 17 House and Senate general election races, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics. In 2020, that grew to 51 races with women challenging each other.
Traditionally the surest way for Republican women to maintain and increase their ranks has been to elect more women in safe seats. At least five women won this year in seats rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, a CNN contributor.
The answer? Encouraging even more women to run.
"I've already gotten texts from other women who are interested in running here in Iowa since the election last week," said Hinson, who praised the mentoring she received from other women in elected office as well as from outside groups like Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, which, because of the pandemic, hosted regular Zoom calls with all of its endorsed candidates so they could get to know each other. (Hinson will continue to get to know her new colleagues virtually since a positive Covid-19 test is keeping her away from in-person new member orientation this week in Washington, DC.)
But helping each other may not always come naturally, some said. "Women are far worse on other women than they are on their male colleagues," said Mace, reflecting on her experience at the Citadel, in business and in politics. "Women don't like to see other women be successful."
"I do feel like it's gotten better over the years, but I see it more often than not, and it's true on both sides of the aisle. That's why I'm always encouraging women to run."
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