There are just 13 GOP women in the House. That may not change

Nominating women for safe open seats easier said than done

Two of the 13 Republican women in the House, Reps. Martha Roby of Alabama, left, and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, are retiring.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Two of the 13 Republican women in the House, Reps. Martha Roby of Alabama, left, and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, are retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2020 at 4:17pm

With just 13 women on Capitol Hill, House Republicans don’t have any room for error if they want to boost their numbers. After this year’s initial batch of primaries, however, and looking ahead at primaries to come, Republicans are at risk of simply breaking even when it comes to their female contingent in the next Congress.

Even though more Republican women have filed to run for the House in at least the last 30 years, getting elected is another story.

One of the easiest ways to increase the number of women is to elect them in open seats in districts that are solidly or leaning Republican. That often requires navigating a competitive primary, rather than having the additional hurdle of defeating a Democratic incumbent.

This cycle, two GOP women are not seeking reelection, Martha Roby of Alabama and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana. But it’s plausible that Republicans won’t replace either with another woman.

Republicans will be replacing Roby with a man after businessman Jeff Coleman and former state Rep. Barry Moore advanced to the July 14 primary runoff in the 2nd District, which covers southeastern Alabama. Jessica Taylor, co-founder of the “Conservative Squad” formed late last year as an alternative to the “squad” of liberal House Democrats that includes New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, finished third in the March 3 primary, about one half of 1 percentage point short of the second runoff slot.

The race to replace Brooks in Indiana’s 5th District is getting more complicated. Having three credible female candidates — state Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, businesswoman Beth Henderson, and state Sen. Victoria Spartz — could create an opening for a man, physician Chuck Dietzen.

Up to this point, the race has lacked a clear front-runner. None of the candidates have shown exceptional fundraising ability, while a few — Dietzen, Henderson and Spartz — have some personal resources. With a crowded field and no runoff, a candidate could walk away with the nomination with a third of the vote or less in a field of 15 candidates.

Spartz is looking to fill the void. She told people early in the race that she would spend up to $1 million of her own money and is now on broadcast television with an ad touting her conservative credentials and stance against socialism, and aligning herself with President Donald Trump.

“Born in the socialist-controlled Ukraine, she experienced the ills of socialism, but she rejected those ideas and came to America, legally,” says the narrator in Spartz’s 30-second TV ad airing this week in the Indianapolis media market, per Kantar/CMAG.

Spartz could also be the beneficiary of outside help with a recent endorsement from the Club for Growth, led by former Indiana Rep. David McIntosh. The combination of personal money and outside spending could help distance herself from the rest of the pack.

Henderson was on television with a small cable buy earlier in the campaign. Last week, she earned a public rebuke from the Brooks’ deputy chief of staff, who told Henderson to stop telling people the congresswoman had recruited or specifically encouraged her to run, according to The Indianapolis Star.

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While Spartz could win the primary, her personal style and strident conservatism could jeopardize the GOP’s hold on the suburban seat in the general election. Multiple party strategists are concerned that she is unsteady, unproven, and unliked, even by her Republican colleagues.

In order to secure her state Senate nomination in 2017, Spartz won a caucus vote of 40 people on the ninth ballot, with significant help from the well-regarded outgoing state Sen. Luke Kenley. According to local GOP sources, Spartz was unlikely to survive a 2020 primary, so attempting to move up to Congress was a better strategic calculation for her personally, but it could create a headache for national Republicans.

Republicans will be replacing at least one of their retiring men with a woman. Teacher and farmer Mary Miller won the March 17 GOP primary in Illinois’ 15th District with 57 percent of the vote. The general election is a formality for the GOP nominee in a Downstate district where Trump received more than 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Republican incumbent John Shimkus is not seeking reelection.

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There’s also a chance a woman is elected to replace former GOP Rep. Mark Meadows in North Carolina. Real estate agent and local GOP activist Lynda Bennett will face 24-year-old real estate businessman and motivational speaker Madison Cawthorn in the June 23 primary runoff. Although, there might be an additional race if the governor orders a special election now that Meadows resigned to become White House chief of staff. The congressman previously announced he would not seek reelection. Trump carried the 11th District under its redrawn lines by 17 points in 2016, so the GOP nomination is valuable for a man or woman.

Two other solidly Republican districts hosted primaries for open seats left by retiring members. But GOP voters in both districts nominated men. Republican Jay Obernolte will move on to the general election in California’s 8th, which Trump won by 15 points in 2016 and is currently represented by Rep. Paul Cook. Rep. Mac Thornberry is not seeking reelection in Texas’ 13th, where Trump received nearly 80 percent of the vote, and Josh Winegarner and Ronny Jackson moved on to the GOP runoff. Elaine Hays finished fourth in the primary with less than 8 percent of the vote. In addition, Texas Rep. Kay Granger, the most senior GOP woman in the House, turned back a primary challenge from Chris Putnam.

Some of Republicans’ top House candidates are women, including Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel in California’s 48th and state Rep. Nancy Mace in South Carolina’s 1st. But they are two good examples of the difficult road Republicans have to travel through well-financed Democratic incumbents to increase the number of women in the House.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.