Jacques: GOP drowns in women's wave

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Women ruled this week.

From Michigan, where the top three statewide offices are now held by women, to Congress, where a record number of women will now serve, it’s been an exciting week for the fairer sex as they officially take office.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, takes a selfie with Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-NH, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday,  Jan. 3, 2019.

In addition to sharing the same gender, nearly all of these newly elected politicians bear another bond: They are Democrats.

That didn’t happen by chance. It was a concerted two-year effort by the Democratic Party and other groups that exist to help liberal women get into office. And it was a backlash against President Donald Trump.

“It was masterful,” says Linda Lee Tarver, president of the Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan. “There was a definitive and orchestrated approach to get women elected in 2018.”

She’d like GOP women to see similar success, but there's a lot of work to do.

The number of women in Congress has now reached 127, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Yet in the Senate, only eight of the 25 women are Republican, and those numbers are more disparate in the House: 89 are Democrats and just 13 are Republican.

The GOP has to face this disparity head on, with 2020 quickly approaching. That includes a need to recruit and help more Republican women to run, as well as work on a broader messaging that could win back some of the suburban women who cast their votes for Democrats in the midterms.

Republicans don't like tokenism, and many GOP women say gender doesn’t matter when they vote for a candidate. But the party is looking increasingly out of touch. As Democrats add women and minorities to their ranks, the GOP looks much like it always has: white and male.

GOP legislative leaders in Michigan further showed how tone deaf they are when they didn’t put any women in top leadership roles; and there are plenty of qualified candidates.

“I’m frustrated with missed opportunities on our side,” says Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, which seeks to educate women about conservative, free-market policies. “Leadership should do more to put our great women out front.”

Lukas also points blame at media coverage, which often paints liberal candidates and movements like the Women’s March in glowing terms while ignoring or dismissing conservative women. This discourages Republican women from wanting to get involved. For instance, a Washington Post article from last week describes all the historic firsts among Democratic women, while writing off the one new Republican female House member as a “bison farmer.”

Michigan Republicans are looking to answer this women's wave by putting a woman in charge of the state party in a few weeks. Laura Cox of Livonia is the likely candidate, and she brings strong experience as a state representative, county leader and former law enforcement official. 

Laura Cox, R-Livonia

“It’s important to have women involved in politics,” says Cox, who has mentored women with political ambitions. 

But she says her priority will be uniting the party and working to re-elect the president next year.

Moderate women and independents who are appalled by Trump may be looking for a more nuanced approach. Conservatives have a great message to sell, and that shouldn’t get lost in the current political circus.

“We should be really focused that our side is explaining why we have better policies in a way that resonates with women and connects with their concerns,” Lukas says.