The party that’s already lacking in women in the House is losing a giant in Indiana Republican Susan W. Brooks, who announced her retirement Friday.
One of just 13 women in the GOP conference, the four-term lawmaker had been heavily involved in recruiting and mentoring Republican women well before she was named recruitment chair this cycle for the National Republican Congressional Committee, a role she’ll keep despite not seeking re-election in 2020.
But for Republicans looking to take back the majority and diversify their ranks, the optics of Brooks’ announcement could be problematic: How does the GOP sell being in Congress, especially to women, when their own head of recruitment doesn’t want to stick around?
“Well, sure,” Brooks said, when asked if she was concerned about the message her retirement could send, especially to Republican women. “But I really want to stress that I have a very good relationship with the administration. I have a great relationship with leadership. I’ve been given lots of opportunities.”
“So I can demonstrate to people that the women in our conference are being given really big responsibility — and we do need more of them there,” she told CQ Roll Call.
Democrats quickly pounced on Brooks’ decision — not only for what it means for a suburbanizing district outside Indianapolis they were already targeting in 2020, but for the GOP as a whole.
“In a party whose leadership continually marginalizes women’s voices, losing Congresswoman Brooks, who was working hard to recruit women to run for office, underscores the problem Washington Republicans have created for themselves,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said in a statement Friday.
A personal choice
While President Donald Trump carried Brooks’ district in 2016, he did so by a smaller margin than Mitt Romney in 2012. And Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly won the district last fall, even as he was losing statewide. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales downgraded the GOP’s chances in the race after Brooks’ announcement, moving it from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.
Brooks insists her decision had nothing to do with politics and believes that the GOP will retake the House in 2020.
“I’m not retiring because I’m upset with the Republican Party, because I’m upset with our leadership, because I’m upset with the president or vice president. That’s not why I’m retiring,” she said.
It’s a purely personal decision, she said, solidified by a recent trip to Alaska to see her son, who’s teaching there. She didn’t give leadership time to dissuade her from leaving, reaching key leaders by phone Thursday night and Friday morning.
“Steve Scalise sweetly said, ‘Hey, can we vote on this?’ Which I thought was quite funny,” Brooks recalled of her conversation with the Louisiana Republican and House minority whip.
It’d be easy to interpret Brooks’ departure as a blow to the GOP conference, which is down from the 23 women it had in the 115th Congress — and it is. “It sucks,” said Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC, which supports female GOP candidates, and a friend of Brooks.
“Susan was always one of the first ones, when we’d introduce her to a new candidate, to give them her personal cell phone number,” Conway said.
But Brooks’ departure, she said, is not indicative of where the party is going. So far this year, 172 women have talked to the NRCC about running. And Brooks is optimistic that not having to campaign for her own re-election will give her even more time to recruit good candidates.
“We’ve got a long time between now and the November election,” Conway said. “This is certainly not a foreshadowing of that.”
Brooks, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, already sees something different happening with recruitment this year.
“I was asked to run, it wasn’t my idea,” said Brooks, who previously served as deputy mayor of Indianapolis and U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. “But what I’m seeing from a lot of the people coming through — it has been their idea.”
She praised the Lugar Series, started by the late Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar to train women in Indiana for public service, and said more states should host such initiatives.
Because of her official role at the NRCC, which doesn’t play in primaries, Brooks has been more cautious this year about picking sides. But she’s always used her leadership PAC to support GOP women and is continuing to do this year.
She cut a check from her leadership PAC, for example, for pediatrician Joan Perry, who’s running in the primary runoff in North Carolina’s 3rd District next month. It’s the party’s only opportunity to add another Republican woman to its ranks this year, but the contest has divided the GOP conference between all 13 women, who are backing Perry, and the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus, which is backing state Rep. Greg Murphy.
Over the years of talking to candidates interested in running for Congress, the women have usually been more likely to ask Brooks about how campaigning will affect their time with their friends and family.
“What’s interesting is, I’m going out, in part, because of where I am in my life with my family and my friends,” Brooks said.
But Brooks wants women to know that there are no barriers to running.
The biggest institutional barrier is, unfortunately, just the mindset that there are barriers,” she said.
At the same time, though, she admitted that big Republican donors have historically given more money to male candidates than female candidates.
“But the women have to also go and make their case to those donors,” Brooks said. “Women need to get more comfortable touting their accomplishments and touting their skills, and promoting themselves.”
When it comes to touting her own accomplishments, Brooks talks about her leadership on the House Ethics Committee, especially while #MeToo allegations were roiling Congress; reauthorizing pandemic preparedness legislation; responding to the sexual assault of U.S. gymnasts, which was uncovered by her hometown newspaper; and fighting for mental health training and resources for law enforcement officers.
“I’m going to miss being a part of the discussions about our country’s biggest problems,” Brooks said.
And the people — including many members on the other side of the aisle, as well as interns and staff she’s mentored.
“After I’m done — I’ve got a long time — that’s what I will miss the most,” she said.