The moderate Republican woman was speaking last week at the Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch, just south of Austin. The first order of business was to confront that one “nasty little rumor going around” about herself.
This was Jenifer Sarver, a 40-year-old former staffer for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and she was facing off in a forum with 12 other GOP candidates vying for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) seat in Congress.
Sarver was here to talk about policy and pragmatism. Surrounded by Trump supporters and taxidermied animals, she was not in her element, and she leaned into it with her confession. “It’s true,” she admitted. She voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I couldn’t support candidate Trump,” she said. “As a woman, I couldn’t do it.”
“Just then,” wrote one Austin-American Statesman columnist who was in the room, “some of the dead animal heads on the walls turned toward Sarver with looks of shocked disbelief.“
Sarver didn’t stop there. She took aim at the “aging, white” GOP and said Republicans need to learn how to work with the other side.
“We have a tone that is shutting people out,” she said. “Young people are not interested in joining our party. Women are leaving our party in droves. And if you look out over this audience, it’s a very white crowd here tonight. And it’s a pretty white group of people that are running as well.”
The room fell silent ― and then right-wing candidate Matt McCall chimed in. “We shouldn’t be getting along with the side that wants to kill babies,” he said. “Married women vote Republican.”
As Democratic women storm the 2018 midterm elections, running in higher numbers than ever before and inching closer toward equal representation in government, Republican women are becoming something of an endangered species in Congress. More than a quarter of GOP women in the House aren’t seeking re-election this year, leaving a gaping void in a caucus in which women already make up less than 10 percent of elected members.
Republican women are struggling to find a foothold in a party that rejects “identity politics” and therefore puts little effort into recruiting, training and financially supporting female candidates. Moderate GOP women, in particular, are increasingly marginalized in the bellowing, hypermasculine Republican Party of Donald Trump, President Grab ’Em By The Pussy. Look no further than the wagon-circling around Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary who resigned last week over allegations of spousal abuse. Trump’s first instinct was to praise Porter and his second was to muse on Twitter about false accusations.
“Maxine Waters has coined the term ‘reclaiming our time.’ We want to reclaim our party,” said Meghan Milloy, co-founder of the nascent nonprofit group Republican Women for Progress, which aims to train moderate GOP women to run for office. “Many of us are for limited government and free markets, but we’re not these cuckoo ‘Let’s put the gays in a camp’ Republicans.”
Milloy and her co-founder, Jennifer Pierotti Lim, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in support of Clinton, would love to fill Congress with more women like the broadly popular Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who are moderate at least in their rhetoric if not always their votes. The “chupacabras,” Milloy and Lim call them.
But Republicans aren’t seeing the same surge in female candidates as Democrats are this year in response to Donald Trump’s presidency. The number of Democratic female House candidates has risen by 146 percent since the 2016 election, while the number of Republican women candidates has increased by 35 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP). In total, 99 GOP women are looking to run for Congress this year, compared with 351 Democratic women.
There’s no great mystery here. Many Republican women did vote for Trump and therefore aren’t motivated and inspired to run against his agenda. But there’s a structural deficit as well: The GOP also lacks its own equivalent to EMILY’s List, the massively influential PAC that recruits, trains and fundraises for female Democratic candidates.
“Most PACs are just waiting for Republican women to surface. I don’t know any doing recruitment on the ground,” said Milloy. “I wouldn’t say diversity is really a priority for Republicans at this point.”
“The Republican Party has made repeated statements that they’re not the party of identity politics, they’re just looking for the best candidate, and it’s hard to reconcile direct recruitment and targeting of women with that position,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at CAWP. “That’s part of why you see less of that targeted work, which we know is essential.”
Republican PACs may also be low on energy this year, Milloy said, because the party of the president historically loses seats during a midterm election. “They may be thinking, ‘Why would we go recruit all these great women, only for them to lose?’”
Jesse Hunt, national press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, counted “nearly 50 female candidates” who’d been recruited by the NRCC — “a tremendous job,” he called it.
Milloy and Lim, both attorneys who have been active in politics since the George W. Bush administration, are also hoping to fill the void and eventually become the Republican version of EMILY’s List. They’re holding a public candidate training for Republican women in Washington, D.C., next week, and they’ve identified about 10 center-right female candidates so far that they’d like to help train and support in the 2018 elections.
Sarver is one of them. She won’t have an easy time running as a moderate Republican woman in Texas, where Trump dominated the 2016 election, and which hasn’t elected a freshman woman to the House since 1996. But her pragmatic approach to policymaking may be refreshing to some who are frustrated by the direction of the GOP and the rightward polarization of politics in general.
“I’m pro-life, but I know standing and screaming at each other about abortion is not getting anything done,” she told HuffPost. “I wanna say, ’Let’s set aside the issue of abortion and come together on ways we can reduce unintended pregnancies,′ like talking about access to contraception, which ultimately reduces abortion.”
Sarver said her message seems to be resonating, at least in Austin ― a blue dot in a red state. “People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you sound really rational.’ And I think, man, the bar’s really low. I don’t wanna be in a party that people think is extreme and isn’t sane.”
Sarver’s fundraising numbers are not ideal ― she’s raised only $150,000 so far. Her primary race is very crowded, which in part explains the low number, but she needs more money to be competitive. A candidate backed by a group like EMILY’s List would have raised much more by now. Chrissy Houlahan, a first-time Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania, had raised $660K by October thanks to EMILY’s List’s early help.
Republicans need to invest in female candidates, Dittmar said, to bring an essential fresh perspective to what is increasingly a party of old white men. The GOP strategy of choosing the “best candidate,” without regard for gender, only perpetuates a system that excludes more than half the population from the table.
“You’re not choosing a candidate based on her identity,” Dittmar said. “You’re just ensuring there’s equal opportunity for women, like men, to be considered from the job, and giving a voice to a group who have been historically marginalized from the process.”