On Politics With Lisa Lerer: The Plight of Republican Women

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Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Much has been made of the record-breaking number of women newly elected to Congress in the midterm elections. But one reality that often gets overlooked amid the fawning coverage: They’re nearly all Democrats.

Thirty-seven women won House seats in 2018. Only two were Republicans.

After the election, Republicans vowed to do better. Recruiting intensified, and money was promised to support female candidates.

One of the women those efforts helped draft was Dr. Joan Perry, a “pro-life, Christian” pediatrician, who jumped into a special election for an open House seat in a conservative district in eastern North Carolina.

Her primary runoff campaign against Dr. Greg Murphy, a conservative state representative and urological surgeon, was seen as an early test of women’s position in the Republican Party. A new political action committee aimed at electing Republican women poured nearly a million dollars into her bid. All 13 Republican women in the House backed her, along with Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi.

On Tuesday, Dr. Perry didn’t just lose. She was crushed.

Supporters of Dr. Murphy insist the race wasn’t about gender, saying his promise to join the ranks of the hard-line Freedom Caucus in the House is what led to his victory. After Dr. Perry declined to make the same vow, the political-action arm of the caucus ran ads casting her as a “another lying Nancy Pelosi liberal.”

Some Republican women aren’t quite as convinced gender had nothing to do with the loss, charging their male colleagues with failing to “step up” on Dr. Perry’s behalf. Just eight male congressmen donated to Dr. Perry’s bid.

“I am concerned about this false assumption that is made that somehow women candidates are not conservative,” Representative Elise Stefanik, an upstate New York Republican who repurposed her political action committee after the 2018 race to help Republican women, told The New York Times.

But the problem may be less about perception and more about a tough political reality: Republican women simply do not get the support that their Democratic rivals enjoy.

In 2018, women contributed $184 million to Democratic female congressional candidates and just $25 million to their Republican counterparts. And those numbers don’t include the power of well-established liberal PACs, like Emily’s List, founded in 1985 to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

But the obstacles facing female Republicans go beyond just a need to bolster their resources.

The gender gap in politics is real: In every presidential election since 1996, a majority of women have preferred the Democratic candidate.

That gap has grown into a gulf during the Trump administration. Suburban women fled the party during the midterms, helping Democrats take control of the House. And recent polling found that more than 6 in 10 women said they would “definitely not” vote for President Trump in 2020.

“We have to work very hard as Republicans to convince more women to run for office, but also to convince more women to vote for us,” said Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, who’s mulling a bid for Senate. “Attracting women voters is crucial.”

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Things got tense for Democrats in the House this week. Lucky for us, our crack congressional correspondent Julie Hirschfeld Davis is here to explain:

Start with a fractious caucus of House Democrats that includes brash progressives clamoring for change and pragmatic moderates looking for compromise. Add months of simmering tensions over the Green New Deal, impeachment and defunding immigration enforcement. Sprinkle in a dollop of social-media-fueled sniping and a dash of racial resentment.

It all adds up to a feud, between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and four freshman congresswomen collectively known as The Squad, that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Ms. Pelosi tried again on Thursday to shut down chatter about the increasingly public tensions between her and the group, telling reporters that she had “said what I’m going to say” on the matter to her caucus behind closed doors on Wednesday.

But the buzz continued apace, after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the four freshman, suggested in comments to The Washington Post that Ms. Pelosi had repeatedly disrespected her and her colleagues because they were women of color.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez told CNN on Thursday that she did not believe Ms. Pelosi was a racist, but the remark had already touched a nerve with the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, which dispatched a Democratic aide to suggest that it was the New York congresswoman who was responsible for injecting race into the conversation, when her chief of staff wrote a tweet last month comparing the Blue Dogs and other moderates to the segregationist Southern Democrats of the 1940s.

The feud is bigger than Ms. Pelosi and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and it has implications far beyond either of them. It points to the differences within the Democratic Party — demographic, generational and ideological — that are driving the crowded presidential race and the debate over how best to confront President Trump.

And the tensions are all but certain to flare anew in the weeks to come, as House Democrats complete a defense policy bill generating opposition from progressives, a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill drawing concerns from moderates, and legislation to set spending levels and raise the debt limit — all while continuing to grapple with whether to impeach the president.

Our colleague Astead Herndon, who covers national politics, sent us this:

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the minister and social activist who convened nine presidential candidates earlier this year to discuss his Poor People’s Campaign to uplift disenfranchised communities, said that he remains disappointed in how some Democratic candidates are discussing poverty.

In an interview for the podcast “Faith 2020,” obtained by The Times before its release, Dr. Barber said he appreciated that so many candidates attended his forum, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and others. But he also said it showed the candidates have “work to do.”

Specifically, Dr. Barber said, the candidates rely on government data that underestimates the issue and conflates poverty with race.

“Some of them still talk in those terms, where, when they talk about poverty they talk about the government number of poverty, and they still talk in those racialized terms,” Dr. Barber said.

“I’ve been a little sad afterward, hearing them talk about middle class, middle class, middle class,” Dr. Barber said. “We cannot just have middle-class conversations, we have to talk about poor and low wealth.”

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