Can dozens of new Republican congresswomen change the face of the GOP?

Kat Cammack was raised on a cattle ranch by a working class single mother. She was the third generation of her family to go into business as a sand blaster. And at 32, she is about to become the youngest Republican woman in the US Congress.

“I think a lifetime of experiences has shaped me to be a Republican and a conservative,” said Cammack, elected to an open seat in Florida. “There has been a stereotype about the Republican party, that it was the Grand Old Party, that it was your grandfather’s political party of choice. The election in 2020 has definitely helped push back on that narrative.”

Of the 12 seats in the House of Representatives that Republicans have flipped from Democratic control so far this year, nine were won by women, two by Latino men and one by an African American man. The trend represents a conscious effort by a party still dominated by white men: diversify or die.

It also reflects the complexities of America’s voting demographics, which saw Trump make gains among Latinos in states such as Florida and Texas, win a majority of white women for the second time and improve his standing among African Americans. The counterintuitive data have been seen as a wake-up call for Democrats.

Cammack argues that the Republican party was a natural choice for her after watching her mother try to run a small business while fending off intrusions from big government, and after the family lost their small cattle ranch in 2011 “due to an Obama-era housing programme”.

She recalls: “That was really the turning point in my life where you find yourself homeless, you had a life plan and all of a sudden that is completely out the window and you have to make a choice. Do I put my head back in the sand? Do I rebuild my life and keep going down the path that I had envisioned for myself? Or do I do a hard right and get involved and try to fix the system?”

Cammack duly went into politics at district and federal level and, seven years later, ran for Florida’s 3rd congressional district. She was endorsed as a “rising star” by E-Pac, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s political action committee dedicated to electing Republican women.

A vocal supporter of Donald Trump, Cammack believes that Republicans’ pitch as the party of equal opportunity, not equal outcome, struck a chord whereas Democrats pushed a “government will take care of you” narrative and took some groups for granted. “Biden had several gaffes: most notably he said, ‘If you don’t vote Democrat then you’re not Black.’ What kind of ridiculous nonsense is that?

“In 2016, I took heat from the left that because I was a young woman and I wasn’t supporting Hillary Clinton, I was a traitor of some sort. That is the most un-American, stereotypical sexist, racist nonsense I’ve ever heard. You should never discount someone’s individuality and basically say that they can only vote one way or for one party because they check a box.”

When Cammack met other newly elected members of Congress earlier this month and swapped notes about their winning campaigns, she recalled, they all cited issues such as healthcare, the coronavirus and the economy. “We never once went out and said, ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman,’ or ‘Vote for me because I’m a millennial’.

“It was always, ‘Vote for me because I’m the best person for the job and here’s why,’ and that is what is resonating with people. I think this narrative that if you are African American or if you are a minority or if you’re a woman you have to vote Democrat couldn’t be further from the truth and the results from this election prove that.”

The Republican recruitment drive is starting from a low base. Eighteen months ago, just 13 of the party’s 197 House members were women. By contrast, 89 of 235 House Democrats were women and nearly 90 were Black or Latino. There is only one Black Republican in the Senate: Tim Scott of South Carolina.

John Zogby, a pollster and author, said: “They’re still basically a lily-white party and they’re still a male-centered party, but let’s see if this is a formula for them. Frankly, if they have any hope at all, this is the only formula.”

At least 36 Republican women will join the next Congress, beating the party’s record of 30 set in 2006. Of these, 28 will serve in the House, including at least 17 newcomers, based on results so far. Stephanie Bice, an Iranian American in Oklahoma, María Elvira Salazar, a Cuban American in Florida, and Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both Korean Americans in California, all defeated Democratic incumbents.

Michelle Steel of California.
Michelle Steel of California. Photograph: Chris Carlson/AP

The breakthrough came after a determined grassroots effort by political action committees such as E-Pac, Winning for Women, Maggie’s List and Julie Conway’s Value in Electing Women (View) to seek out, sign up and support more diverse candidates. Conway told NBC News: “It’s been a long time coming.

“I think everybody’s looking for the magical reason why 2020 was such a good year for Republican women, but the reality is, it’s a combination of a lot of things over a lot of years … seats that were winnable, and incredible women running for those seats, and the infrastructure around them finally at a point that they were able to get at least some of the help they needed to get them over certain obstacles and then they were able to be successful because they, quite frankly, worked their tails off.”

It was an encouraging start but such groups are still dwarfed by Democratic rivals such as Emily’s List, which has raised more than $600m to elect female candidates who support abortion rights. Republicans will still only have roughly a third of Democrats’ number of women in Congress, and only about a 10th of Democrats’ number of women of colour. The party of Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy still has a long way to go in its outreach.

Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, said: “It’s absolutely bearing fruit for them and, if I may say so, it’s about time they got on the bandwagon.”

The election result sent mixed signs, with Biden winning a record 80m votes but Democrats suffering a whittling down of their House majority and falling short in Senate races with high expectations in Iowa, Maine and South Carolina. Despite four years of outrage over Trump’s misogyny and racism, women and people of color did not deliver the blanket rebuke that some expected.

McDermott added:

“There are women who have conservative views and have the courage of their convictions and they’re clearly not bothered by Trump or his stance or in some cases even embrace it warmly. Women, just like men, have their own views and shouldn’t be expected to vote for or to run for a certain party just because of their sex.”

The outcome also implied that terms such as “the Latino vote” are reductionist and obsolete given the huge diversity within that group alone. Mexican Americans backed Biden in California and young, progressive Latino voters helped him wrest away Arizona. But Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans in Florida and Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas shifted in Trump’s favour.

Republicans’ appeal to scrappy self-reliance and the American dream could be one persuasive factor, McDermott said, but not the only one. “It’s not just individualism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which I think is appreciated in immigrant communities. But there’s also a religious aspect to this.

“A lot of Latin immigrants, whether they’re from Mexico or Cuba or various other places, tend to be more religious than other groups and that is another appeal that the Republican party has to them. It’s this cultural conservatism that I think ties them partly to the Republican party.”

Amid much post-election soul searching, and with Senate runoffs in Georgia fast approaching, Democrats acknowledge there is no room for complacency. Antjuan Seawright, a party strategist based in Columbia, South Carolina, said: “I don’t think any political entity or party should take any constituency for granted because if there’s one thing election after election teaches us, it’s that no voting bloc is monolithic.”

Seawright, who is African American, added: “I think if we all take a step back, most people agree that the Republican policies do not necessarily move the needle in a good way for consequential constituencies. However, Democrats have to remind people about the failures from a policy perspective but also elevate what we would do differently.”