What was the path to candidacy and officeholding for women who ran in the 2020 election? Investigating where women candidates came from and what they described as their motivation for running can help us to better grasp the process of women candidate emergence and potential opportunities for expanding both the number and diversity of women in the candidate pool.
This section looks more specifically at the background and emergence of women candidates for the U.S. House in election 2020. It also pays particular attention to the paths to office among Republican women, who rebounded from losses in 2018 to reach a new high in officeholding in 2021.
Women congressional nominees and winners brought diverse occupational backgrounds to 2020 candidacies, but were more likely than unsuccessful women candidates to have held previous elected office. For some non-incumbent women winners, running for Congress more than once was the path to success.
- Women members of the 117th House of Representatives are diverse in occupational backgrounds, with newly-elected women more likely to bring professional experience in business.
- Women nominees for and winners of U.S. House seats in election 2020 were more likely than unsuccessful women candidates to have held previous elected office, demonstrating that there remains electoral value in previous elected officeholding for women congressional candidates. Non-incumbent women House winners in election 2018 were less likely to have taken this path to congressional officeholding, but 2020 patterns are more consistent with the likelihood of previous officeholding among all women in Congress.
- 87 non-incumbent women who lost congressional or statewide executive contests in 2018 also waged congressional bids in 2020, with winners demonstrating that the path to electoral success is sometimes paved with loss.
Women candidates described diverse sources of motivation for candidacy in 2020, including a sense of urgency to address perceived threats.
- Republican women candidates in 2020 utilized the language of urgency and threat – including perceived threats to President Trump and his agenda by Democrats elected in 2018 – in outlining their motivation to run for office. In 2018, Democratic women were more likely than Republican women to use this language – citing perceived threats of President Trump and Republicans’ legislative control – to describe what motivated them to run.
Women’s electoral success – across parties – in U.S. House primaries provides some indications that primary hurdles have been lowered but not eliminated.
- Women did not have more primary opponents than men overall in 2020 U.S. House elections, and incumbent women were no more likely than men to face women challengers. However, Democratic women of color House candidates did face more primary opponents, on average, than white women in open-seat contests.
- While there were a record number of all-woman general election U.S. House contests in 2020, Democratic women incumbents were no more likely than Democratic men to face or lose to Republican women challengers.
The rebound of Republican women in 2020 relied on an established, albeit small, support infrastructure, combined with enhanced attention to the crisis of Republican women’s underrepresentation by candidates and party leaders.
Previous Electoral Success
While earlier CAWP research showed that the majority of women serving in state houses had not held previous elected office, women in Congress are much more likely to have held prior elected office before winning congressional contests.1 More than half (58%) of women currently serving in the U.S. House held elected office – most often at the state legislative and municipal levels – prior to running for Congress. But the success of women without elected office experience in 2018 suggested that the path to congressional office was widening; just ten of 36 (27.8%) freshman women in the 116th House held elected office before becoming U.S. Representatives. In 2020, however, 15 of the 28 (53.6%) new women elected to the House held other elected offices before their congressional victories, indicating there likely remains electoral value for women congressional candidates in previous electoral success and officeholding experience.2
This is further demonstrated by the contrast in previous officeholding experience between women nominees and winners in House contests in 2020; while more than half of non-incumbent winners held previous elected office, less than one-quarter of all non-incumbent women House nominees in election 2020 came to their congressional candidacies with previous elected officeholding experience.
Among the new women in the 117th House, 12 of 19 (63.2%) Republicans and 3 of 9 (33.3%) Democrats held previous elected office. In comparison, 63.3% of all Republican women and 56.2% of all Democratic women serving in the House as of March 19, 2021 served in other elected offices before coming to Congress. More than two-thirds of women of color serving in the U.S. House as of March 19, 2021 held elected office prior to waging their congressional bids, including more than half of the women of color who won House seats for the first time in 2020. Just over half of white women House members – and exactly half of new white women members – held previous elected office before serving in Congress. In contrast, 20.8% of all non-incumbent women of color House nominees, 24.6% of all non-incumbent white women House nominees, 22.7% of all non-incumbent women Democratic House nominees, and 22.9% of all non-incumbent women Republican House nominees in election 2020 had previous elected officeholding experience.
Not surprisingly, women serving in the U.S. Senate are even more likely to have held previous elected office, including serving in the U.S. House. Of the 24 women currently in the U.S. Senate, just two – Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) – had never won elected office prior to winning their Senate seat. Nearly half of the women in the Senate today served in the U.S. House before moving to Congress’ upper chamber. In election 2020, the only non-incumbent women winner in the Senate – Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) – came to her candidacy with experience in the U.S. House, Wyoming State House and Senate, in addition to serving as Wyoming State Treasurer. Of the 13 non-incumbent women nominees for U.S. Senate in 2020, less than one-third held elected office before running for Congress.
While there is both electoral and experiential value in previous officeholding, women representatives also bring expertise to candidacy and officeholding based on occupational experience they earned prior to running for or serving in elected office. It is difficult to pinpoint any single occupation for individuals with diverse resumes over time, but even a look at the most recent (pre-candidacy/pre-officeholding) occupations of women candidates and representatives provides a glimpse into the most proximate professional steps on women’s paths to congressional candidacies.
More than one-quarter of women House members serving in the 117th Congress as of March 19, 2021 worked in some sort of non-elected governmental role prior to serving in elected office, making it the most common occupational credential among current women officeholders. The next most common occupational backgrounds include law (18%) and business (16%), followed by occupations in the non-profit (12%) and education (9%) sectors.
In comparing the freshman women in the 117th House to all women representatives, there are some differences that align with what appear to be different paths by political party. The most common occupational background for all Republican women in the House today is in business. Likewise, more than one-third of the 28 new women in the House – of whom 19 are Republicans – point to business as their most recent non-officeholding occupation. The new class of Republican women also brought two doctors (of the three total women doctors in the House) and two television journalists.
Gender and politics researchers have examined whether or not an electoral loss will deter women candidates from running again, possibly closing a path to officeholding through candidate reemergence. A study of U.S. House candidates from 1980 to 2014 finds no significant gender difference in losing candidates’ likelihood of re-emerging.3 However, gender differences in candidate reemergence might vary by level of office, as other research that shows greater attrition among women candidates than men at the local, but not state legislative level.4 The magnitude of a loss may also matter, though the same congressional study shows that – if anything – women who lost close congressional elections were slightly more likely than men to run again.5 Research on women who lost congressional contests in 2018 offers a “gendered theory of electoral persistence,” arguing that even if women are equally (or more) likely to run again, gender differences likely factor into losing candidates’ calculus over whether or not to make another bid for office.6
If they do run again, what are women’s chances of electoral success? A 2018 study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation finds that an electoral loss is not detrimental to voters’ perceptions of women candidates’ favorability or qualifications.7 Moreover, the study offers effective strategies for pivoting from a loss to future electoral success.
Many women candidates who lost in election 2018 appeared to heed this advice of persistence instead of withdrawal at the congressional level, seeking to leverage their 2018 loss into 2020 election success. Of the 487 non-incumbent women House candidates in 2020, 61 (42D, 19R) ran for the same seat in the 2018 election. Another 13 (7D, 6R) ran for Congress in 2018, but not for the same district or office. Four (2D, 2R) more women ran for statewide executive offices in 2018 and the U.S. House in 2020. Of the total 78 non-incumbent women House candidates in 2020 who were unsuccessful congressional or statewide executive candidates in 2018, 50 (34D, 16R) won House nominations and 9 (5D, 4R) were elected in 2020.
While the large majority of women rebound candidates for Congress lost in 2020, nearly one-third of the 28 non-incumbent women winners of House seats – including more than half of the Democratic women newcomers – found success after a 2018 defeat.8 For example, Representative Catherine Bordeaux (D-GA), who lost her 2018 bid by less than 500 votes, was one of those rebound winners. She launched her 2020 campaign with this appeal to voters: “In 2018, we came within 433 votes of flipping this seat. I am running because I believe in a country that is diverse, inclusive and global in its outlook and aspirations. I hope you’ll join me in this fight. It’s time to finish the job.” In 2018, Representative Claudia Tenney (R-NY) lost her House seat by just over 4,000 votes. In 2020, she reclaimed the seat in New York’s 22nd congressional district by the smallest of margins. Of the 9 (5D, 4R) women who were successful in the rebound bids for congressional office, 3 (1D, 2R) are women of color including Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), who is Black, Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), who is Cuban-American, and Representative Young Kim (R-CA), who is Korean-American. Persistence paid off for these women, demonstrating both the potential need and value of navigating loss on the path to electoral success.
In contrast, none of the rebound women congressional candidates for U.S. Senate were successful in 2020. Of the 13 (10D, 3R) non-incumbent women Senate candidates in 2020, 3 (2D, 1R) also ran for U.S. Senate in 2018. Another 3 (3D) – most notably M.J. Hegar (D-TX) and Amy McGrath (D-KY) – ran for and lost U.S. House contests in 2018 but launched Senate candidacies in 2020. Three (3D) more ran for statewide executive offices in 2018 and the U.S. Senate in 2020.
According to a 2008 CAWP study of state legislators, women are more likely than men to make decisions about candidacy that are relationally-embedded, “influenced by the beliefs and reactions, both real and perceived, of other people and to involve considerations of how candidacy and officeholding would affect the lives of others with whom the potential candidate has close relationships.”9 Likewise, recruitment and encouragement – particularly from political sources – are more influential in spurring candidacy among women than among men.10 Other research touts the value of less direct encouragement, such as role modeling, inspiration, and training programs that reduce women’s doubts and affirm the possibility of electoral success.11 More targeted messaging to women and/or about the need for more women – and greater diversity of women – in office, as has been especially evident since 2016, could also provide indirect encouragement that factors into some women’s decisions to run.12 Finally, making an affirmative case for candidacy that emphasizes women’s capacity to solve problems and make positive policy change once in office can enhance their likelihood of running.13
CAWP’s 2008 study found that women state legislators were significantly more likely to be pure recruits (candidates who had not seriously thought about running until someone else suggested it) than self-starters (candidates who said their decision to run for office was entirely their idea). But that survey was unable to speak to the role of encouragement for losing candidates, who make up the majority of women (and men) who run. Evidence from recent elections suggests some evolution in the importance of direct recruitment, especially from political and party leaders, as a prerequisite to candidacy for women. For example, in June 2019, Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN), who served as recruitment chair for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) in 2020, told Roll Call, “I was asked to run, it wasn’t my idea. But what I’m seeing from a lot of the people coming through — it has been their idea.” Talking about Representative Ashley Hinson (R-IA), National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) Chair Tom Emmer (R-MN) said, “She approached us the day, I think, of the swearing in [of Abby Finkenauer, the 2018 winner] and said she’s running.”
These examples suggest that, even among women winners, women’s impetus to run for office might be less dependent on encouragement alone. Another example from 2020 evidences the likely complexity of many women’s calculus, where encouragement and personal ambition intertwine. Representative Michelle Steel (R-CA) described her path to congressional candidacy in California’s 48th congressional district as paved with both encouragement from others and realization of her own ambition. She reported being encouraged by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the Republican who had lost the 48th district to a Democrat in 2018, and Representative Mimi Walters (R-CA), who served in California’s 45th district until 2019. After prayer and consideration, she describes waking up in the middle of the night and making the official decision to run.
CAWP’s research on women’s paths to political office suggests that nascent ambition is not necessary to spur women’s candidacies; instead, ambition and candidacy can arise simultaneously, courtesy of catalyzing forces like encouragement or shifting political contexts that alter their cost-benefit calculations about candidacy.14 Evidence from 2016 and 2018 shows emotions like anxiety, anger, urgency – often cued by perceptions of threat – mobilized activism and voter turnout among progressives, women, and communities of color.15 And a review of non-incumbent women House candidates’ publicly reported statements of why they chose to run in 2018 shows that catalyzing events and emotions were among many factors that contributed to women’s candidacy calculations.16 That research found that the stimulating effect of the 2016 election – and the negative emotions it cued – on political participation and candidacy was most common among Democratic, not Republican, women.17
While more limited in scope, a review of publicly reported statements of motivation among non-incumbent women winners of U.S. House seats shows that sense of urgency among progressive women candidates did not disappear in 2020. Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) was motivated to run to capitalize on what she described as a “transformative moment.” She explained, “What that means is that we have to not just undo the damage that was done during the last four years. We need to determine what our vision is, what we want to accomplish.” Likewise, Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA), who first ran for Congress in 2018, said, “Our country is at a defining moment,” and added, “Like many women running all across the country, this isn’t the path I had envisioned for myself. But this is the path that this moment demands.” Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist who also ran in 2018, described her candidacy as a response to injustice, illustrating the translation of activism into candidacy that has become more common in recent elections. She described her motivation to run for Congress on her campaign website: “I am running because our district deserves a purpose-driven leader with a proven track record of fighting for the people, even when it threatens my own life. I am running because I have seen that change can happen across this nation when regular people stand up fearlessly against an unjust system.”
In 2020, unlike in 2018, many Republican women also described their motivation to run as a response to threat. After the Democrats took control of the U.S. House in 2019, Republican candidates nationwide, including women, pointed to the need to combat Democratic agendas. Nearly all of the non-incumbent Republican women House winners in 2020 included this commitment and/or motivation in public statements about why they ran for office, and most spoke about combating the Democrats’ “socialist” agenda, which they tied specifically to prominent figures like Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) – members of a group of progressive freshman women of color in the 116th Congress often described as “The Squad.” In announcing her bid for Congress, Representative Stephanie Bice (R-OK) warned against re-election of incumbent Representative Kendra Horn (D-OK), “We can’t have a representative who answers to Nancy Pelosi and a far-left socialist agenda.” In Representative Nancy Mace’s (R-SC) first campaign video, she explained, “We can’t allow radical politicians in Washington to turn America into a socialist country.” And pointing to a move toward the left among congressional leaders, Representative Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) announced, “We should all be worried about the direction our nation is taking! That’s why I’ve filed paperwork to run for Congress in 2020.” Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who successfully challenged a member of her own party in the Republican primary, was more hyperbolic in her rhetoric. She warned on her campaign website, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Squad and the rest of these left-wing lunatics are taking a wrecking ball to our country while our current representative stays utterly silent,” adding, “I’m running for Congress to stand up for our conservative values, address our current representatives’ failed promises, and put far-left Democrats back in their place.” As detailed further in the next section, the singling out of members of “The Squad” by Republicans (women and men) as personifications of threat, which began in the 2018 election and has contributed to their overall visibility despite their freshman status, is inseparable from their gender, racial and ethnic, religious, and generational identities.
Combating Democrats in Congress was paired with defending Donald Trump and his agenda for many Republican women candidates in 2020. As Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) explained on her campaign home page, “I’m a conservative wife, mother, and businesswoman who 100% stands with President Trump and against the left-wing socialists who want to wreck our country.” Likewise, after winning the Republican primary in her district, Representative Kat Cammack (R-FL) said in her victory speech, “We are going to go toe-to-toe with AOC.” She added a direct message to the then-Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump: “You have reinforcements on the way, sir.” Representative Diana Harshbarger (R-TN) captured these common elements in Republican women’s motivation messaging in 2020, including parallel language to Democrats about the particular importance of this moment. In outlining her candidacy calculus, Harshbarger said that she was “running for Congress because she believes that our nation is at a tipping point,” adding, “Fringe liberals threaten the future of our country with the false promises of socialism. They stand in the way of President Donald Trump’s progress and economic freedom.” Harshbarger explained, “The president needs an outsider like himself in Congress that has his back,” and vowed to take on that role once in Congress.
Motivation to change Washington, whether directly combating Democratic control in the House or pushing for broader reforms against special interests or the status quo, were evident among many non-incumbent women – across parties – running for and winning House seats in 2020. A message of change is not uncommon for any candidate seeking entry into what has become an unpopular political institution, and it can often be especially effective for women who continue to represent – in their identity alone – difference from the norm of congressional leadership. Candidate motivation statements from women winners include: “Washington has lost its way”; “Career politicians – from both parties – have failed the American people”; “Our children and families can’t wait for a dysfunctional Washington to start paying attention”; and “I am running to change Washington.”
For some women candidates in 2020, addressing Washington’s dysfunction meant promoting unity and bipartisanship. This was a present, though less common sentiment, in winning House candidates’ public statements about why they were running in 2020. Representative Young Kim (R-CA), who ran unsuccessfully in 2018, explained, “I am running for Congress to be the commonsense problem solver our community deserves in Washington.” She promised voters, “I will do what’s right even if it means standing up to both parties.” Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) told voters, “The next session of Congress will require leaders with the knowledge and toughness to make difficult but necessary decisions based on facts, not emotion or partisanship. That’s why I’m running for Congress.” Representative Deborah Ross (D-NC) similarly vowed, “I am willing to work with anyone and everyone who wants to do the right thing for our state and country.”
The sense of urgency to address the political moment, desire to combat perceived threat, and overall commitment to changing Washington, were – as in 2018 – only some of the factors that motivated women to run in 2020. Among non-incumbent House winners, other public statements about what motivated candidacy included emphases on promoting and restoring values (like faith, freedom, and limited government), protecting the “American Dream,” and securing a better future for children – including their own children and the country’s next generations. Some women candidates were more overt in public statements about their motivation to promote more inclusive political leadership. As Representative Nikema Williams (D-GA) explained in an interview about her decision to run in 2020, “For far too long, Black women have not been seen as leaders, not just in our party, but in our country. This year, we see a record number of Black women running for Congress.” She went on, “I’m a believer that it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. I always take to heart: If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?“
Fewer Republican women spoke publicly about their desire to see more women in office as motivating their 2020 bids, but the record number of Republican women candidates and resultant rebound in Republican women’s congressional representation suggests there was motivation among some Republicans – including Republican party leaders, Republican women activists, and potential candidates – to respond to both the record success of Democratic women and widespread losses among Republican women in election 2018.
Immediately after the 2018 election, for example, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) – who was the recruitment chair for the NRCC in the 2018 cycle – argued that her party needed to do better in recruiting and supporting women, and she advocated investing in women candidates at the primary stage to bolster their chances of success. Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN), the incoming chair of the NRCC at the time responded by telling Roll Call, “If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right…But I think that’s a mistake.” While he later clarified that it would be a mistake for the NRCC to get involved in primaries, this exchange just a month after significant losses in Republican women’s congressional representation demonstrated the hurdles in the way of more targeted efforts within the Republican Party to address the severe underrepresentation of Republican women as candidates and officeholders.
However, Stefanik and other Republican women leaders pushed forward in their efforts to define Republican women’s underrepresentation as a “crisis” in the Republican Party that required an active intervention. By January 2019, Stefanik had launched Elevate PAC, or E-PAC, as a re-branded version of her own leadership PAC to exclusively support Republican women candidates. At E-PAC’s launch, Republican congresswomen made explicit the need for more Republican women to run and win. And notably, Republican men in leadership – including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), and NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (R-MN) – showed up to speak in support of Stefanik’s efforts. Emmer partially reversed his earlier comments, saying at the event’s opening panel, “We have to continue what you [Stefanik] started,” and added, “We’re going to align with you to the extent we can.” Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN), who served as the NRCC’s Recruitment Chair, was more overt in her commitment to diversifying the Republican House candidate pool – in terms of both gender and race – in the 2020 cycle. She told Roll Call in April 2019, “It’s important that we, as a conference, do a better job of looking like America, and [do] better representing the very diverse country that we have.” Brooks told reporters that, in addition to working with state and local party leaders, she worked with political action committees (PACs) focused on electing Republican women to aid in the recruitment process. In particular, she noted that the NRCC and groups like E-PAC, Value in Electing Women (VIEW) PAC, and Winning for Women made referrals of women candidates to each other in the 2020 cycle.
Despite these efforts, the NRCC was still unwilling to “play” in primary elections, reducing the role they could have in backing women candidates from the start. That early support – synonymous with the strategic model of EMILY’S List, a powerful PAC that has for more than three decades backed pro-choice women candidates at the primary stage – had to come from elsewhere in 2020. VIEW PAC, a PAC launched in 1997 by Republican congresswomen and professionals to help elect Republican women to Congress, made its first direct contributions to non-incumbent Republican women House candidates in the first half of 2019. By the end of 2019, they had endorsed and maxed out direct giving to more than 20 Republican women candidates. Maggie’s List – another PAC committed to electing Republican women – began their endorsements as early as July 2019. E-PAC made its first eleven public endorsements of the 2020 cycle in October 2019, including endorsements of seven of the Republican women non-incumbents who went on to win in November 2020. Winning for Women – who supports Republican women candidates through its PAC and independent expenditure arm WFW Action Fund – made its initial 12 endorsements of non-incumbent women congressional candidates in November 2019, including seven who now serve in the 117th Congress. Each group paired endorsements, which grew in number over the course of the 2020 cycle, with direct contributions to endorsed candidates. While the money they contributed directly to candidates accounted for only a small fraction of each candidate’s total, the value and validation of early endorsements by established conservative leaders and organizations should not be discounted.
Also hard to quantify is the value that these organizations, and their leadership, played in creating a support infrastructure for women making the decision to run for office and navigating through primary and general elections. For example, Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman documented how VIEW PAC Executive Director Julie Conway established a virtual support network for Republican women candidates in the 2020 cycle and noted the hours of informal advice and encouragement provided to Republican women candidates by other group leaders and women officeholders, including Representative Stefanik. In multiple interviews with press throughout the 2020 cycle, Republican women’s organization leaders cited the strategic approaches of EMILY’s List and the robust support infrastructure for Democratic women as something to emulate, albeit with customization to the culture and dynamics within their own party. This work did not begin in 2020; VIEW PAC, for example, has been working for more than two decades to create this support system for Republican women. But that investment of effort appeared to pay off more than ever in 2020. Like EMILY’s List, especially in its earliest days, Republican women advocating for more women in office are not relying on the Republican Party to take the reins. As Maggie Astor wrote in the New York Times, “All of this reflects a broader shift among Republican women: They are mobilizing to get themselves elected, because they no longer believe the party will do it.”
Previous research has documented the large disparities in targeted financial support to women candidates between Democratic and Republican women’s PACs.18 Those disparities persisted in election 2020, despite the influx of targeted contributions from E-PAC and significant giving by Republican women’s PACs that existed prior to 2018. For example, VIEW PAC made contributions of more than $600,000 directly to Republican women candidates in 2020, including giving the maximum amount in legal contributions to 17 of 19 non-incumbent Republican women House winners. But the disparities between Democratic and Republican women on the financial playing field come in indirect – or outside – spending, where these limits do not apply. Winning for Women’s WFW Action Fund was the only group supporting exclusively Republican women candidates that spent significantly in this way. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they spent nearly $3 million in independent expenditures in support of Republican women congressional candidates or against their opponents in the 2020 election cycle. But this level of outside spending still paled in comparison to the targeted financial support for Democratic women congressional candidates in 2020. EMILY’s List spent about $31 million through their independent expenditure program Women Vote! alone to support Democratic women congressional candidates in election 2020, about ten times the amount that WFW Action Fund spent in support of Republican women. More traditional party support came to Republican women candidates upon their primary success. And those successes were notable early, leading NRCC Chairman Emmer to claim by the end of May 2019, “The road back to the [Republican] majority is through the suburbs, and the road through the suburbs is going to be with strong female candidates.” By November 2020, women were about 40% of the NRCC’s “Young Guns,” House nominees in congressional contests deemed most competitive and worthy of targeted investment. Women were just 22.6% of all Republican House nominees, demonstrating their over-representation in this group of Republicans’ priority contests. The NRCC’s “Young Gun” designation came with financial support, as is evident in the fact that about 41% of the group’s 2020 independent and coordinated expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, were spent in support of Republican women nominees or against their opponents. Importantly, however, the NRCC’s decision to designate a nominee as a “Young Gun” is most directly related to competitiveness of contest, and largely unrelated to candidate gender.19 As noted earlier in this report, the House districts in which Republican women won nominations in 2020 were – on average – more competitive than the districts with male nominees; while women were 22.6% of all Republican House nominees in 2020, they were 12 of 35 (34.3%) Republican House nominees with general election contests within five-point margins. Whether or not candidate gender shaped district competitiveness is beyond the scope of this report, but worthy of additional research. At the least, however, the Republican Party’s enhanced financial support of women House candidates in 2020 should be considered in the context of contest competitiveness, as party leaders provided little indication that targeted spending by gender was among their 2020 strategies.
What does this tell us about the rebound of Republican women in election 2020, at least in U.S. House contests? There is little debate that Republican women’s interest in candidacies increased in 2020, based both on women’s outreach to Republican organizations and the record number of women who filed as candidates. That enhanced interest may have been sparked by a number of factors, including – but not limited to – Republican women leaders’ and organizations’ efforts to identify and address the “crisis” of women’s underrepresentation as officeholders immediately after election 2018, the growth in a support infrastructure for Republican women candidates, a desire by Republican women to rebut claims of women’s invisibility in the Republican Party, and intention to respond to the surge of Democratic women who ran and won – and concurrent drop in Republican women – in election 2018. Even where these specific factors may not have been the impetus for individual Republican women to run for office in 2020, they yielded greater attention to gender disparities within the Republican Party that may have fostered conditions contributing to Republican women’s success.
Paths to Success
Previous research has identified primary elections as presenting distinct hurdles to women candidates. Specifically, research has suggested that Republican women are at a particular disadvantage in primary elections, due to stereotypical expectations of women’s liberalism and the ideological fidelity of primary voters.20 However, a recent study on ideology and gender in U.S. House elections finds little evidence that the relationship between candidate ideology and primary victory differs for women and men. And while more conservative candidates have fared better – on average – in Republican primaries, conservative women fare equally well as conservative men.21 The same study provides evidence that Republican women primary candidates have become more conservative over time, and Democratic women have become more liberal, with Democratic women consistently more ideologically liberal than men in the from 1980 through 2010. That increased liberalism has benefited Democratic women in primaries, though the predictor of success is ideology and not gender.22 Both Republican and Democratic women fared better than their male counterparts in 2020 House primaries. While CAWP data does not include ideological scores for all congressional candidates, the success of Republican women in primary contests seems consistent with research indicating that Republican women House candidates are meeting the ideological demand of Republican primary voters.
Ideological hurdles are not the only primary problems that women candidates might face, however. Research analyzing House candidates in primary elections from 1958 to 2004 found that, while women won primary elections at equal or higher rates than their male counterparts, they faced more crowded primaries than men.23 In 2020, however, candidates’ gender was not a significant factor in the number of primary opponents they faced. The average number of primary opponents women candidates faced in all House contests, as well as in open-seat primaries only, was slightly – but still significantly – lower than men. More influential determinants of primary opposition in 2020 include incumbency and contest competitiveness, with incumbents attracting fewer primary opponents and competitive general election contests being preceded by more crowded primaries. The one exception to women’s lower levels of primary opponents was among Republican House candidates, which is due to the large gender disparity among Republican House incumbents. Among open-seat candidates only, Republican women were no more likely than men to attract primary opponents.
We also analyzed differences in the level of primary opposition between white women and women of color House candidates in open-seat 2020 contests, finding no significant difference overall. However, Democratic women of color did face more primary opponents, on average, than Democratic white women in 2020. Increased primary opponents decreases the chances of primary victory for all women, regardless of race, but the racial disparity among Democratic women in primary opponents might help to explain why Democratic women of color, specifically in open-seat contests, had lower average primary win rates than Democratic white women open-seat candidates for the U.S. House in 2020.
There were a record number (47) of U.S. House general election contests pitting Democratic and Republican women nominees against each other in 2020, which begs the question of whether or not incumbent women officeholders attract more women opponents. The study of primary competition faced by women House candidates cited above found that, among House candidates from 1958 to 2004, women were significantly more likely to enter primaries to ultimately challenge women incumbents of the opposing party.24 In 2020, our analyses find that incumbent women representatives did not attract significantly more out-party primary opposition from women candidates than did incumbent men. Moreover, at the general election phase, Democratic women House incumbents – who represented 88.5% of all incumbent women House nominees in 2020 – were no more likely than Democratic men House incumbents to face Republican women challengers. In the 2020 general election, 31.8% of Democratic women House incumbents and 31.9% of Democratic men House incumbents faced Republican women challengers.25 Finally, were Democratic women House incumbents any more likely than their male counterparts to suffer defeat by Republican women challengers? No, according to our basic analysis. Of the ten Republican women challengers who won House seats in 2020, four (40%) defeated incumbent Democratic women and six (60%) defeated incumbent Democratic men, which matches the proportion of women (38.6%) among all Democratic incumbent House nominees.
These analyses provide some insights into potential primary hurdles to women’s political success, demonstrating positive signs of progress from previous research. At least in U.S. House contests, the fear of gender bias against Republican women based on ideological expectations appears unfounded in recent decades and, in 2020, the primary election success of conservative women provides further evidence of this trend. Unlike in previous decades, women in 2020 did not face more primary opponents than their male counterparts, indicating somewhat clearer paths to primary success. And finally, while women House incumbents in 2020 were slightly more likely to attract opposition from women of the other party, they were no more likely than men to lose to Republican women challengers.
These findings do not prove parity at the primary election stage, however. Importantly, our analyses point to some racial disparities among women, with Democratic women of color House candidates attracting more primary opponents than Democratic white women in 2020 in open-seat contests. Moreover, here we have only analyzed two sites for gender bias in electoral conditions and outcomes. The vast literature on women candidate emergence and experience identifies social, political, and structural barriers that women may encounter from considering candidacy through Election Day. That body of evidence serves as an important reminder that evaluating gendered barriers to women’s political progress requires investigation across all phases of campaigns and across all sites – both informal and formal – where gender differences in electoral evaluation, experience, and access occur.