One week before the 2020 election, Donald Trump beamed out at a Lansing, Michigan crowd and delivered his closing pitch to the women he imagined might be watching him. “I’m also getting your husbands — they want to get back to work, right? They want to get back to work. We’re getting your husbands back to work, and everybody wants it,” Trump said.
More than 12.1 million women lost jobs this year; female joblessness stands at the highest it’s been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking it in the 1940s. Unlike most past recessions, when women tended to retain work while male-dominated sectors like manufacturing absorbed the brunt of the pain, in the pandemic, it’s industries more likely to employ women — hospitality and education, for instance — that have been devastated. Factor in those women forced to give up jobs to care for children who can’t be in school, and a pretty grim picture starts to emerge, one from which it could easily take decades for American women to recover.
Before the election, Trump was widely mocked for the sort of desperate, tone-deaf comments he made in that Michigan speech, while polls predicted the president’s support among female voters would crater in a fatal blow to his and his party’s election hopes. But those predictions were mostly wrong. According to exit polls, Trump did one point better with women as a whole than in 2016, five points better with both black and Hispanic women, and three points better with white women. In a year with record voter turnout, those gains weren’t enough to match Joe Biden’s numbers, but the president can console himself with the fact that, come January, he will have helped put a record number of Republican women to work in the halls of Congress.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected, Republicans have wrung their hands, fretting about what a figurehead with such retrograde views on gender might mean for the party’s long term viability. The 2018 midterm results seemed to offer a prophecy: Pundits called it “the year of the woman” — 102 of them were swept into Congress. But only 13 of those women hailed from the GOP, bringing the party’s female representation in Congress to a 25-year low.
“This election should have served as a wake-up call,” retiring Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told me at the time. “We need women GOP leaders, we need more young voices, more minorities. As you look at a snapshot of the House on the GOP side, there is not much contrast in the makeup — so much white. Goodness. It takes one’s breath away.
“But,” she added, “I am optimistic that the GOP will reform. We will evolve. If not, we die.”
The 2020 election shows there are signs that the GOP is evolving — in the sense that wildlife in the fallout zone “evolved” after Chernobyl. The Republican Party didn’t much improve its demographic makeup this year — members who have promoted the deranged QAnon delusion now outnumber black Republicans in the House of Representatives — but at least 35 Trump-loving Republican women were elected, five more than the party’s previous record. As the president is forced to leave, spitting and screaming, his toxic, pugilistic brand of politics will live on in those women: paranoid conspiracists, partisan firebrands, and ardent Trump loyalists — a lot more Sarah Palin, and a lot less Margaret Chase Smith.
Among the newcomers to the House are Beth Van Duyne, the former Texas mayor who earned national attention for embracing a conspiracy theory that muslims were plotting to take over America and enforce Sharia law; Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, the open-carry restaurant owner and Beto O’Rourke antagonist who said she “hoped” QAnon was real “because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values”; and the infamous 9/11 truther, Pizzagater, and QAnon devotee Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, already picking Twitter fights with her Republican colleague Dan Crenshaw over what she sees as his insufficient loyalty to Trump.
There still existed, in 2016 and even 2018, Republican candidates who deemed it prudent to put distance between themselves and the president, but not in 2020. The women who ran and won this year did so by emphatically embracing both Trump and Trumpism — even when the feeling wasn’t necessarily mutual. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, for example, has backed Trump’s claims that the election in her state was rigged even as the results showed Loeffler beating Doug Collins — the man Trump reportedly preferred to her for the Senate seat. Loeffler won her race by unabashedly boosting Trump, even when it put her in the awkward position of claiming, for instance, that she was “not familiar” with the infamous recording of Trump boasting that he could do anything he wanted to women, including “grab ’em by the pussy.”
Republican women’s success this year is in no small part due to the work of New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. In a break from tradition, Republicans, led by Stefanik, worked to support female candidates in their primaries, taking a page from the playbook Democrats have been using for years.
Republican women, hailing as they do from a party that eschews affirmative action, have historically lacked the kind of early support Democratic women can count on from groups like the fundraising behemoth EMILY’s List (the acronym stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” as in, it helps raise the dough). That lack of early support kneecapped them. “You can’t overstate how important it is to have that funding in a primary, particularly in these highly competitive, strong Republican districts,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The whole election is really in the primaries. So if you’re not going to invest in these women, in those districts at that time, that makes it really tough.”
Stefanik, one of the few GOP women left standing after the 2018 bloodbath, recognized that. As the first head of female recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, she helped convince more than 100 GOP women to run for office back in 2018. But only a few of them made it through their primaries, and only one of them won that November. When the dust settled on the midterms, Stefanik promised to create her own PAC and “play big in the primaries,” funding women and other non-traditional GOP candidates. Her declaration caused something of a rift in a party — incoming NRCC chairman Rep. Tom Emmer called it “a mistake.”
Votes are still being counted, and several races are too early to call, but the verdict on that dispute is in: Of the 28 female candidates Stefanik’s Elevate PAC supported in the general election, 18 of them have won their races or are leading as of this writing.
That early support though — money that helped ensure those women were competitive in Republican primaries — is also one of the big reasons why many of the women heading to Congress are so extremely conservative this year. “One of the perceptions, on the Republican side particularly, is that women are more moderate than men,” Walsh says. “In reality they may not be — but the perception is they are. And who votes in a Republican primary? It’s the most conservative Republican voters.” (Loeffler, for example, assured voters in one of her primary ads that she was more conservative than Attila the Hun).
Those staunch conservative voters aren’t just showing up in primaries, either. Consider Stefanik herself. In 2014, she became the youngest woman elected to Congress at the time. A former policy aide in George W. Bush’s administration, Stefanik was a moderate from upstate New York who expressed doubt that her party would nominate Trump in 2016, then skipped the GOP convention when it did. A lot can change in four years: Stefanik had a primetime speaking slot at the 2020 convention, which she used to defend Trump and lambast the press and Democrats for what she called the “baseless and illegal impeachment sham.”
Bearhugging Trump turned out to be a winning strategy: Stefanik defeated her Democratic rival Tedra Cobb (or, as Stefanik referred to her, “Taxin’ Tedra”) by 29 points — double the margin she beat Cobb by two years earlier. Her decision to ape the president turned her home district newspaper against her — The Glens Falls Post-Star tutted that she “embraced the extreme partisan style of President Trump, and in the process, moved away from the centrism of her district” — but voters loved it.
Trump’s infiltration of the Republican Party has left moderates with two choices: debase yourself on his altar, or leave. As the party has tacked further to the right, it hasn’t just ushered in a crop of ultra-conservative candidates, it’s ushered out moderates like Barbara Bollier, one of three state legislators in Kansas who left the party two years ago. Bollier grew up in a moderate Republican household, with a mother who was a precinct committee woman and worked diligently to get Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum elected in 1978. “That is what I believed Republicanism was — moderate thinking, pro-schools, people over a party — that type of philosophy,” Bollier told me in 2018. “As I have aged, the Republican Party has moved further and further and further to the right… I tried and tried and tried to help the Republican Party move [back] in that [moderate] direction. And what I have found instead is they’ve worked harder and harder to get me out. And not just me.”
It took one of her Republican colleagues comparing Bollier to the Nazi doctor on the floor of the state senate to really consider switching parties. “And no one calls him out. No one says, ‘This is not the decorum of a senator in Kansas,’” she recalled. Instead, it was Bollier who was stripped of her committee seats. “They do not want moderates as part of their group — the conservatives. Any of us who have been moderates are attacked both from the Republican side — Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ money — and the Democratic side.”
This year, Bollier ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, but despite fundraising that dwarfed her rival and polls that showed a close race, she lost to GOP Rep. Roger Marshall by roughly 12 percentage points. She remains a state senator in Kansas.
Walsh, of the Center for Women in Politics, says the trend in the GOP has been underway for a long time. “When I started at the Center in 1981, there were a lot of moderate Republican women elected in state legislatures in places like Oregon and Washington state – all around the country,” Walsh says. “Almost systematically, [they] got picked off in primaries as the party moved further and further to the right. You’re left with a few women — like Susan Collins, like Lisa Murkowski, like the former governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman — who then get labeled things like ‘RINO’ [Republican In Name Only]… And there’s not a place for them. And what you saw in this cycle, I think, is the reality of where the Republican Party is, and what it takes to get elected on the Republican side.”