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As The Total Number Of Women In Congress Reaches An All-Time High, GOP Numbers Drop


Twenty-one Republican women will be in Congress this coming session, 21 out of 535 members. That is a drop, even though the total number of women lawmakers will hit an all-time high. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, some in the GOP are sounding the alarm.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Ashley Nickloes is a busy woman. She's working towards her master's degree. She's a mother of four. And when I caught her, she was on the road for one of her other roles.

ASHLEY NICKLOES: I'm a military pilot. And we have to do our simulator recurrency twice a year. So I'm here now (laughter) and in St. Louis. Yes, ma'am.

KURTZLEBEN: On top of all that, she also ran for Congress in Tennessee last year but lost in the primary. She knows any number of factors played into that. For example, she was deployed for part of the campaign. But she thinks the GOP needs to do more to get women like her elected.

NICKLOES: With only - what? - 13 seats now in the House of Representatives as Republican women, that is not at all indicative of who the Republican Party is.

KURTZLEBEN: Nickloes is one of many frustrated with the Republican Party's track record with electing women. Retiring Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is another, as she recently told NPR.

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: It is unbelievable. It is astounding. It is eye-popping. And I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a challenge and a problem that we need to fix.

KURTZLEBEN: To be clear, women are underrepresented on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Just under 1 in 4 members will be women next session. But less than 1 in 10 Republican members will be women.

One reason Republican women are poorly represented at the national level is that they're also scarce in state legislatures. That's a traditional training ground for Congress. And at both levels, their numbers will decline this year. Here's Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.

DEBBIE WALSH: It's significant that of the one new Republican woman who was elected in this cycle, she came out of the state legislature - Carol Miller.

KURTZLEBEN: Both parties also have different ideas about how important diversity is. One in 3 Republicans believe there are too few women in political office. In comparison, 8 in 10 Democrats think so, according to the Pew Research Center. And then there's money. Here's Walsh again.

WALSH: Women just are usually running for office from less moneyed professions, less moneyed networks.

KURTZLEBEN: That brings us back to Nickloes. She says her lack of connections hurt her fundraising.

NICKLOES: Because the other gentleman had a lot of political influence already, I heard the word retribution continuously. I had a lot of people who were like, I'll give you $175. But these were people who were able to give thousands. And so they didn't want their name coming up on a report so that my competitors could see.

KURTZLEBEN: To boost their women candidates, Democrats have a campaign money juggernaut in EMILY's List. The equivalent groups on the right have much less money. A chief critic of the party's approach to electing women is New York Representative Elise Stefanik. She spoke about her frustration at a December Politico event.


ELISE STEFANIK: I am tired of having this issue within our conference. So I think it's time to roll up our sleeves and try to change the types of candidates we have.

KURTZLEBEN: Stefanik recently stepped down from recruitment at the National Republican Congressional Committee to build up her own group to support women in GOP primaries. And when NRCC Chair Tom Emmer seemed to call that a mistake, she swiped back.


STEFANIK: I said, news flash. I didn't ask for permission.


STEFANIK: And I will not ask for permission.

KURTZLEBEN: Emmer later clarified that he thinks it would be a mistake for the party to get involved in primaries. But for her part, Nickloes, the pilot from Tennessee, believes the party should do more for women in primary elections. As for whether she'll run again, she's still deciding. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.