If more women are going to hold office in state legislatures, those women will most likely have to be Republicans.
In recent decades, Democrats have been the driving force behind the growing share of women in statehouses, as women have gained a greater share within the caucus. In 2006 and 2008, boom years for Democrats, women collectively gained 51 and 46 legislative seats respectively, and picked up an additional 37 seats in 2012. But those gains have been offset by Republican victories.
2014 was no exception: While Republicans made gains in statehouses nationwide, women lost six net seats in state legislatures in the midterms, according to a count by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. And in 2010, according to the center’s count, the decline was deeper as women lost a net of 59 seats.
Overall, the push-and-pull has kept progress slow: Women currently hold only 24 percent of the 7,383 total state legislative seats available, according to CAWP. Those hoping to see women hold a growing share of seats in the future, however, shouldn’t pin their hopes on Democrats. Gerrymandered state districts, among other factors, mean the party is unlikely to gain many seats—with candidates of any gender—in state legislatures any time soon.
“To climb higher, many more women candidates, and particularly more Republican women, need to run,” CAWP director Debbie Walsh wrote in a statement accompanying the center’s release.
This could be a tall order for a Republican Party that has struggled to get women into office. Only 17 percent of Republican state lawmakers are women—a figure that hasn’t budged since the early 1990s. (During that stretch, Democrats doubled women’s share of the state-level caucus, going from roughly 15 percent to 30 percent.)
Without achieving more parity at the state level, women will likely continue to be dramatically underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. Only 19 percent of all federal lawmakers are women—19 percent in the House and 20 percent in the Senate. And while women make up 33 percent of all congressional Democrats, they are only 9 percent of the GOP Caucus.
But increasing those ratios requires candidates who can win on the federal level, and development of that bench—for each party—begins in the statehouse. Exactly half of members in the 114th Congress previously served in their state legislature.
“It’s extremely important to watch the state legislative level because it’s the bench for Congress and higher office, for statewide, for governors and congressional offices. This is the likely pool of candidates, and if women aren’t there, there’s a ripple effect,” Walsh said.
There are some signs of growing equality: On the federal level, there are now six Republican women in the Senate—up from four last session—and 22 in the House, three more than there were last year.
The party hopes to build on these gains by expanding recruitment efforts launched in 2012, and is counting on outside groups to pick up the slack when it comes to raising money for Republican women who end up in competitive primaries—over which party committees have little control.
However, Walsh generally views the 2014 cycle as one of unmet potential for Republicans. “Both at the congressional and state legislative level you saw a missed opportunity on the Republican side for women making gains,” Walsh said. “We know historically that off-year elections are good years for the party that’s not sitting in power in the White House. You could see the potential for this to be a good year for Republicans, and yet we did not see record numbers of Republican women running for office at either level.”
Some signs suggest the GOP is certainly capable, or at least willing, to add to its female membership. Enthusiasm for efforts to do so is nearly universal among party leaders. Republican State Leadership Committee President Matt Walter says he is enormously proud of the party’s recent efforts to invest more money in recruiting and supporting female candidates, and is hopeful they can make real gains in the near future.
“If we’re going to be successful as a country, everybody needs to feel like they have a stake in the game, and that applies to a number of categories including gender and ethnicity,” Walter said.
The RSLC has invested $11 million in its “Right Women Right Now” effort since its launch in 2012, which is part of its “Future Majority Project” to recruit and elect a more diverse field of GOP legislative candidates. That project has been coupled with similar endeavors run through the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as independent efforts like GOP mega-donor Paul Singer’s “Winning Women” fundraising committee and RNC member Christine Toretti’s education and training-focused Women Lead PAC.
NRCC communications director Katie Prill also spoke of continued commitment to such efforts. “In the 2016 cycle we will continue this long-term effort to grow the remarkable group of women members we have in the House as we work to gain and maintain our House Republican majority,” Prill said.
Most Republican voters, including women, aren’t sold on the idea that getting more women into office should be a priority, or is even a good idea. In a July 2014 Gallup Poll, just 46 percent of Republicans said more women in office would lead to better governance, compared with 75 percent of Democrats. And an ABC News/Fusion poll from late 2013 painted an even bleaker picture. Just 23 percent of Republicans agreed that “it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress.”