Republicans unexpectedly broke a record in the congressional elections, electing the largest number of new Republican women to Congress ever. The Grand Old Party is still overwhelmingly male, however, especially in comparison to House Democrats, who have more than three times the number of women in Congress as Republicans do.
The victory was in the US House of Representatives, where, as of Monday, nonincumbent Republican women won a total of 13 elections to the House. The previous record for the most nonincumbent Republican women winning House seats was nine in 2010. Although 19 House races are outstanding as votes are still being counted, Republicans will now have at most eight women in the Senate (a Georgia runoff in January will determine if Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler holds on to her seat), and at least 24 of their 198 seats in the House filled by women, nearly doubling the number of Republican women representatives currently in their seats, 13.
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Nonincumbent Democratic women, in contrast, won only nine seats this election and lost five women incumbents, all of whom were elected in tough races in 2018. Still, Democrats will now have 87 women representatives in the House (down from 89), and 17 in the Senate. Republicans lost one woman senator — Arizona’s Sen. Martha McSally was defeated by Democrat Mark Kelly — bringing their number of women senators to eight while Loeffler’s fate is unclear.
As of Monday, the number of Republican women in the House gets close to, but does not break, the record for the highest number of Republican women that have ever held seats in the House at the same time — that record was set in 2006 when Republican women held 25 seats in the House. Two House Republican women were set to retire this year, vacating their seats, but Republican women lost no incumbent House seats to Democratic challengers this election.
These numbers could still change, however, as the final races are called. Democrats are projected to retain control of the House, though with a slimmer majority, but Republicans could still see gains in the number of women in their ranks. There are 19 races where the winner has not yet been called. Of those races, seven more Republican women could claim seats, or nine more Democratic women could win (only two of those races, in Texas and Iowa, feature a Democratic woman versus a Republican woman).
A week ahead of the election, Kelly Dittmar, the director of research for Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told BuzzFeed News that Republican women were likely to gain seats in the House, but she wasn’t sure they would gain this many.
“My prediction going into Election Day was that Republican women only had a chance of breaking their record if it’s a good year for Republicans, if the environment is positive for Republicans in general,” Dittmar told BuzzFeed News Wednesday morning. “But I was skeptical that the winds were shifting, all signs, surveys, and forecasts were pointing to it being a bad night for Republicans. That turned out to be wrong.”
The key for the success of Republican women in particular, Dittmar said, is that the party just had more Republican women on the ballots in the first place.
“There have been struggles for GOP in the past — even in good years for their party, there just have been barely any Republican women nominees,” Dittmar said. “This year Republicans had a record number of women on the ballots to begin with. … I guess the party just wasn’t ready before now.”
Five of the seats won by nonincumbent Republican women this election were in solidly Republican districts, but five more, who had been held by Democratic incumbents, were much less expected. Florida Democrats took a hit when Maria Elvira Salazar defeated Rep. Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th District in Miami, and Michelle Fischbach won by a large margin against Rep. Collin Peterson in Western Minnesota’s 7th District. Ashley Hinson became the first Republican woman to represent Iowa in the House after winning its 1st Congressional District and defeating Rep. Abby Finkenauer. (Iowa also has a Republican woman senator, Joni Ernst, who won reelection on Tuesday). While Marjorie Taylor Greene’s win in Georgia’s hyper-conservative 14th District was expected (her Democratic opponent dropped out), her election marks a turn into the depths of conspiracy theory for House Republicans. Greene is a vocal supporter of QAnon, a collective delusion among Trump supporters that claims the president is fighting a satanic cabal of elite Democrats who abuse children.
Despite these wins, GOP women in Congress are still grossly underrepresented. According to the Pew Research Center, about 38% of registered women voters in 2018 and 2019 identified as Republican, while only around 6% of Republicans in the House were women at that time. Democrats, on the other hand, saw historic gains in 2018, bringing the number of Democratic women in the House to a record-breaking 89 of 232 Democrats. While this still doesn’t match the 56% of women Pew found leaned Democratic, it far outpaces Republican women’s representation.
The representation gap widens even more when looking at women of color. There is only one Republican woman of color in the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who is of Mexican descent, won reelection in Washington’s 3rd District this election. This week Republicans added one more with Salazar winning in Florida. She will be the third-ever Republican Latina elected to the House. The most Republican women of color who have held seats simultaneously is three, according to the center, but they could break that record as well this election.
Though their races have not yet been called, Young Kim and Michelle Steel in California could become the second and third Asian American Republican women to ever serve in the House. The last Asian American Republican woman elected to the House represented Hawaii from 1987 to 1991. Republicans have only ever had one Black woman in the House: former Rep. Mia Love, who represented Utah’s 4th District before she lost her seat in 2018.
Stephanie Bice, who flipped a Democratic seat and defeated Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th District, is the first Iranian American elected to Congress. Yvette Herrell, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, defied expectations in New Mexico defeating Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in the 2nd District. Both women told the Center for American Women and Politics this week that they identify as white, Dittmar told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
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Democrats, on the other hand, have 43 women of color currently serving in the House, including three Asian Americans, seven Hispanic and Latina members, two Native American women, and 21 Black women. When the next Congress starts in January, they will have 42 women of color.
“What is important to remember is Republican women were starting at a deficit. They began this election with far fewer women than their record,” Dittmar said Wednesday. “Part of what this year was for them is demonstrating they could build back and regain what they had lost, and there are lots of positive signs that they’re doing the work to be able to take advantage of opportune moments like this and gain even more ground.”