After the probability of a Republican takeover of the Senate (for the first time in eight years) and the possibility that more than six governors will be defeated (for the first time in 30 years) comes the other big subplot of the midterm elections: Will Republicans win more than 56 percent of House districts for only the second time since World War II?
Such an achievement — which would require a net gain of nine seats — would be more symbolic than substantive, because the House majority will have essentially the same legislative torque next year whether the roster remains close to its current 233 or grows to the 240s. That appears to be the outer limit of the GOP’s potential for growth, although some late October surprise could allow a bigger wave to build in the campaign’s final days.
But getting to the upper end of that range would be consequential in another way. Realizing pickups in the double digits would require victories by a disproportionate share of the GOP candidates who have not come out of the party’s traditional straight, white male mold. Republicans are on course to expand their female membership and elect at least one black member, and their freshman class could also include a pair of Latinos and two openly gay men.
If many of those people win, and the House Republican Conference is more demographically diverse than ever next year, that could do the party significant good over the long run. Creating a caucus that looks even a little bit more like America, in fact, could be more beneficial in the run-up to 2016 than staging a series of veto showdowns against President Barack Obama in his lame-duck years.
Among female voters, Democrats have outperformed Republicans by at least 14 points in each of the past five presidential elections, and that gender gap rose to a record 20 points in 2012. Surely it wouldn’t hurt the GOP to have more female elected officials involved in both formulating and marketing an agenda that might resonate better with more than half the electorate.
But there are currently only 19 Republican women in the House (two fewer than the number of female Democrats at the Capitol just from California). That means the House GOP is just 8 percent female, after holding steady at 10 percent — a record for the conference — in each of the previous four Congresses.
The roster of House Republican women is likely to grow in 2015 and there’s even a chance that 1-in-10 glass ceiling will get cracked — a somewhat surprising result given that about one-third fewer GOP women ran for Congress this year than two years ago.
Although two women are heading out — Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is likely about to be elected to the Senate and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is retiring — the 17 female members seeking re-election are confident of winning. And they look to be joined by at least the four women favored to win open seats: Former suburban Mayor Mia Love in central Utah and state Sen. Mimi Walters in California’s Orange County are safe bets, while state Rep. Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs and former White House aide Elise Stefanik in upstate New York both have races now leaning their way.
In southeastern Arizona, former Air Force pilot Martha McSally’s rematch against Rep. Ron Barber remains a tossup, while three additional challengers are only slightly behind and so would likely figure in the first tier of upsets if things break the GOP’s way: state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, who’s up against Rep. Ann McLane Kuster in western New Hampshire; ophthalmologist Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who’s created late-breaking trouble for Rep. Dave Loebsack in southeastern Iowa; and Nan Hayworth, who’s pushing to come back after losing her 2012 bid for a second term to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in New York’s Hudson Valley.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also has been working in recent days to drum up donations for several seeming long-shots, portraying them as still capable of victory if momentum keeps going the GOP’s way. Two are women: Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers, who’s taking on freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in metro Phoenix; and state Rep. Darlene Senger, who’s claiming a late surge against Rep. Bill Foster in the southwest Chicago exurbs.
If they both win, it will have been a big Republican night on Nov. 4 — probably big enough to assure victories for all 10 women on the party’s list of viable candidates. And if that happens, one out of every eight seats on the GOP side of the House could be occupied by a woman come January. The same may also come true in the Senate, where victories by both Capito and state Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa would boost the number of female Republicans to six, which would be one-eighth of any caucus with between 48 and 52 members.
It’s a far cry from what’s already happened across the aisle, where the roster of women has been steadily expanding so that now precisely 29 percent of the Democratic caucus is female in both the House (57 of 199) and the Senate (16 of 55).
Only five black Republicans have been elected to Congress since Reconstruction, but none has served in the House since Tim Scott was appointed a South Carolina senator two years ago. That will change in January, with the arrival of Love and she could be joined by former CIA officer Will Hurd, who’s only a slight underdog against Rep. Pete Gallego in a sprawling West Texas district that’s changed party hands in each of the past three elections.
There hasn’t been an openly gay Republican in Congress since Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona retired eight years ago, but two candidates are very much in the hunt to change that: former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, whose race against freshman Rep. Scott Peters is a tossup, and former state Sen. Richard Tisei, who’s a slight underdog in the northeastern Massachusetts district where attorney Seth Moulton ousted Rep. John F. Tierney in the primary.
And the two candidates who might join the House’s eight Latino Republican incumbents are New Hampshire’s Garcia and Miami-Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo, whose bid to oust freshman Rep. Joe Garcia in south Florida remains too close to call.
Even if all those “diversity candidates” are swept into office by a late surge of GOP support, of course, the House Republican Conference won’t be close to resembling the Democratic Caucus, in which white men haven’t been the majority since 2013 and probably won’t be again for the foreseeable future. But the GOP will need to square itself with the nation’s demographic evolution if it’s going to remain a viable political enterprise in the long run.