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Record number of House GOP women just one of many ‘firsts’ for 117th Congress

Black, gay, Native American and Asian American winners add to changes

Republicans will have at least 26 women in the House — the most they’ve ever had and more than double what they have now — when the 117th Congress convenes in January.

That figure, which grew by two when races in California and Texas were called Tuesday for Michelle Steel and Beth Van Duyne, could still grow further, with GOP women leading in four of the 15 races still uncalled as of Wednesday night.

The change to the gender composition of the House GOP is just one of many coming to the next Congress, which will also blaze trails on race, sexual orientation and age.

The 2018 midterm election brought a deluge of “firsts” and trailblazing diversity to the House, led mostly by women of color within the Democratic Caucus. Democrats took control of the chamber that year with 89 women in their ranks.

Some of them were ousted by Republican women last week, one result from a concerted effort by the GOP to recruit more female candidates and support them through the finish line.

Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW Pac, which supports Republican women running for office, told CQ Roll Call that the huge class of 2018 midterm winners opened some GOP women up to the idea of running for Congress.

“The success of the Democratic women in 2018 certainly was a wake-up call,” Conway said.

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She said seeing women be successful in getting elected, but not sharing the same philosophies or policy positions, led GOP women to say, “Maybe I should try.”

Losing the House majority also presented new opportunities to have female candidates run for both open seats and to challenge first-term Democrats.

Record number of women ran

A record number of GOP women ran for federal office in the 2020 cycle. So many Republican women running and winning bids for the House can partly be attributed to serious investment within the party after the 2018 midterms, which saw a record-breaking 102 women elected to the House. Of the 36 female freshmen elected that year, just one was a Republican.

Of the 227 Republican women who filed to run for the House, 94 were nominated. That’s a record, and nearly 80 percent above the previous high of 53 in 2004, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

A woman won in almost every district that Republicans flipped, a strong showing that brings credibility to the argument that conservative women can win competitive seats if they can survive a primary.

Conway said there is a growing realization that primaries matter, not all candidates are equal when it comes to the general election, and the women can put up a winning fight in November.

“If you get a middle-aged white guy to win a primary because the base is out behind him and the good old boys are out supporting him, if he doesn’t stand a chance in November, who cares?” Conway said.

There was no single formula for a winning Republican female candidate this year. The new class come from a variety of backgrounds: Some served in statehouses, others are gun rights activists or newcomers to electoral politics.

Conway acknowledged that the Republican women heading to Capitol Hill next year aren’t as diverse as the Democrats elected in 2018, but progress was made this year and the party needs to build on that, she said.

Maria Elvira Salazar, a longtime journalist for Telemundo, won a South Florida district, unseating freshman Democrat Donna E. Shalala. Statehouse experience helped Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota, Ashley Hinson of Iowa and Nancy Mace of South Carolina flip their districts. Fischbach is also a former lieutenant governor.

Cynthia Lummis will be the first woman to represent Wyoming in the Senate. It’s a congressional comeback for the lawyer and former state lawmaker who also served four terms in the House from 2009 to 2017.

Colorado’s Lauren Boebert owns a gun-themed restaurant that defied pandemic shutdown orders and where servers openly carry firearms. Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene made headlines for her support of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.

The increased number of GOP women in the next Congress means that committees that had at most one or two women on the Republican side of the dais will have more, which means different voices at the table as legislation is crafted.

The new crop of Republican women also contributed to a record number of total women elected to the House, currently at 114.

“These women raised their hands,” Conway said. “It wasn’t as if we had to go begging people to run. And that’s different.”

Native American representation grows

The House is also seeing other changes besides gender.

For the first time, women of color will make up New Mexico’s entire House delegation. Democrat Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, won a second term in the 1st District. Republican Yvette Herrell, a member of Cherokee Nation, defeated Democrat Xochitl Torres Small in a closely watched race in the 2nd District. And Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez won the open 3rd District, the first woman to hold the seat since its creation in 1983.

Haaland and Herrell will be among a record six Native American or Native Hawaiian members in the 117th Congress.

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, won reelection along with Oklahoma Republicans Tom Cole, a member of Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a member of Cherokee Nation.

Democrat Kai Kahele is another trailblazer. He is Hawaii’s second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress since it became a state. The first was the late Sen. Daniel K. Akaka.

Democrat Cori Bush, a nurse, single mother, ordained pastor and community activist, will be the first Black woman from Missouri ever elected to Congress.

“It’s unbelievable,” she told St. Louis Public Radio. “It’s amazing. But it’s also sad. Because it’s 2020, and I’ll be the first woman in the district and the first Black congresswoman ever for the state.”

New York elected the first two openly gay Black men to Congress, Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones. Torres is also the first gay Afro Latino person elected to Congress.

The young progressive candidates will both replace retiring Democratic lawmakers, with Torres filling Rep. José E. Serrano’s seat for New York’s heavily Hispanic and Black 15th District. Jones will assume the 17th District seat held by Rep. Nita M. Lowey, another trailblazer in her own right as the first woman to chair the House Appropriations Committee.

Marilyn Strickland, the former mayor of Tacoma, Washington, is the first Black and Korean American representative for the Evergreen State. Strickland and California’s Steel, whose race was called Tuesday, are among the first Korean American women elected to Congress.

Youngest Republican member ever wins

At the constitutionally mandated minimum age, North Carolina Republican Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn will be the youngest member of Congress at 25.

Cawthorn turned 25 in August, but he’s only the third-youngest person ever elected to Congress. Jed Johnson Jr., a Democrat from Oklahoma, took office just seven days after his 25th birthday in 1965.

The youngest House member ever should not have been able to serve: William C. C. Claiborne of Tennessee was born in 1775 and elected in 1797 on a Democratic-Republican Party ticket. He served in Congress despite not meeting the constitutional age requirement, according to the House Historian’s office.

Cawthorn is, however, the youngest Republican ever elected to the House, and the first person born in the 1990s to serve in Congress.

Bridget Bowman, Paul V. Fontelo and Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

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