Soon after beginning her career in California politics, Cassandra Walker-Pye issued a warning for her fellow Republicans: The GOP needed to be doing more to elect women into office, stat.
That was in 1991. More than 25 years later, the veteran GOP consultant and former top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is still repeating the same refrain. In fact, the landscape for women in her party has gotten even worse — and Pye’s frustration has only increased.
“I’ve been saying this so long I want to cry,” Pye, who now heads the Sacramento-based 3.14 Communications, says. “Either we’re serious or we’re not, because it’s really not that difficult.”
The 2018 midterm elections sent a record number of women to office, including in California, where the share of women serving in both the state Legislature and the congressional delegation grew. The share of female legislators rose from 25 percent to 30 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Eighteen women currently serve in the U.S. House.
But gains for gender parity during the “Year of the Woman” were largely made on the left. The gulf was especially pronounced in the Golden State. Just five Republican women serve in the entire state Legislature, marking a 10-year-low, according to data collected by the Center for American Women and Politics. Losses in the federal election mean none of the state’s 53 congressional seats are held by GOP women.
The troubling backslide has led stakeholders to reassess efforts to reverse the trend — and fast. Key party leaders say recruiting more women is good for policy and, potentially, helping the GOP stem losses in the increasingly Democratic state. But balancing the scales will require addressing bigger, structural issues with how the party recruits and supports candidates, as well as an infusion of cash for female hopefuls.
For some, the wait has been too long. “It’s not rocket science,” Pye says. “You’ve got to be proactive and you’ve got to be intentional and you’ve got to really be committed.”
Why it matters
The most frequently cited rationale for encouraging more female candidates to run for office is simple: Women make up 50 percent of the population, and our elected bodies should reflect that. But recruiting more women can have political and electoral benefits. Many argue that an increasingly diverse candidate pool is key for winning over voters, especially younger ones, as the country’s population shifts. Young Democratic women, fueled by anger over the policies and statements of President Donald Trump, secured key victories in 2018.
In some cases, hunger for fresh leadership and more diverse representation led to female candidates ousting longtime male incumbents. Voter turnout and excitement in many of those races surged on the left.
Beyond the impact at the polls, electing more women can have potential policy implications too. “Every study I’ve seen indicates that the more perspectives you bring to the table, the better the policy outcomes,” Levinson says. “What it boils down to is when you have gender diversity at the decision-making level, you get better policy decisions. Men and women experience the world in different ways.”
Advocates and operatives say women with backgrounds in business have an especially valuable perspective and, as a result, make particularly strong candidates and officeholders.
“The skill set you bring to the table as a business owner, everything from balancing the books to emotional intelligence, to human resources, to knowing how to compromise and negotiate, all of these are skills you can use in appointed and elected office,” Pye says.
Indeed, some of the most promising GOP candidates of the last cycle, including Young Kim in Southern California, had experience running a company or working in the financial sector. Kim, a former state legislator, emphasized her perspective as a businesswoman on the campaign trail, as she called for lower taxes. But despite distancing herself from divisive statements made by Trump, Kim lost by a narrow margin in 2018 — a year that delivered big wins for Democrats across the board. Yet GOP leaders say her candidacy serves as an example for the party’s path forward.
Melinda Avey, from Fair Oaks, ran for state Assembly in 2018 after becoming frustrated by what she saw as a worsening climate for small businesses like hers.
“I understand the problems that small business has, and it’s getting worse,” Avey says. “One day I said, ‘You know what? I’ve had it.’ And I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”
Her background building a medical transcription service from the ground up was a key part of her pitch to voters as she challenged Democrat Ken Cooley for the 8th Assembly District. While she didn’t win (Democrats have a voter registration advantage in the seat), she says she found support from her local party and fellow Republicans encouraging, and that her bid inspired her granddaughters and their friends to consider entering politics.
While business experience can certainly help with voters, experts are quick to point out that voter appetites range widely across California’s politically and geographically diverse landscape. A candidate like Sen. Shannon Grove, a conservative who was first elected to California’s 16th District as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010, might win easily. In other places, like the deep-blue Bay Area or in purple suburbs, the party might need to identify candidates who are more moderate or connect with a district’s voters in other ways.
That’s something Kim tried to hit home during her campaign too. She emphasized her experience as a Korean immigrant while campaigning in the district, which has a sizeable Asian-American population.
Jessica Millan Patterson was just elected party chair for the California GOP. She says finding candidates like Kim, who truly match the district and can be a “new messenger” for the GOP brand and policies, will be essential as the party moves forward in “super localizing our message when it comes to candidates.” And women play a fundamental role in that shift.
“People want elected office that looks and feels and sounds like they do, and so I think it is important to have more women [elected],” Patterson says. “We think this is an important thing for the Republican Party in California to focus on.”
How we got here
The women problem in the California Republican Party hasn’t always been this pronounced. For years, women like Marilyn Brewer, an Orange County assemblywoman from 1994 to 2000; Rep. Mary Bono Mack, the state’s sole GOP congresswoman from 1998 to 2013; and former-Rep. Mimi Walters, a fixture in California politics who served two decades in state, local and federal office, were trailblazers and role models for future candidates on the right.
In 2010, the party nominated high-profile female candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina for high-stakes gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race. And in 2014, Republicans actually slightly outperformed Democrats when it came to the percentage of women in their respective state legislative caucus.
But in recent years, things have gotten worse. Some of the slide is chalked up to broad demographic and political shifts. Experts say the trend is also partly due to the party’s challenges to hold on to voters and relevancy in an increasingly blue state. Democrats control all statewide elected offices and hold large majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation, as GOP voter registration plummeted to 25 percent of all registered voters.
“There are fewer women in politics than men, and there are far fewer Republicans than Democrats in California in general,” Jessica Levinson, a political commentator and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles says. “It’s really not that shocking. Their numbers are shrinking.”
Some argue that Trump’s election has made things even more difficult for the GOP, especially when it comes to female candidates. The party’s troubles in the state are so dire that some former female stars, including Kristin Olsen, a former Assembly leader and county supervisor, are considering leaving altogether.
In an op-ed published in late 2018, Olsen argued that the California GOP “is dead — partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics. … We have lost our way, and it’s killing any opportunity for political balance and thoughtful debate in California, elements that good public policy relies on,” she wrote.
Party officials largely agree with the assessment that bigger forces are driving the numbers down, and defenders say they did try to support women in 2018. GOP groups spent heavily in the midterms to try to protect Walters’ congressional seat. Kim also narrowly lost her bid for a Southern California seat. In the state Legislature, Sen. Janet Nguyen’s failed re-election bid was one of the most hotly contested races of the year.
“They lost because of other trends that had nothing to do with them being a Republican woman,” Cynthia Bryant, executive director of the California Republican Party, says. “It’s unfortunate. They were running in tough, competitive seats.”
Bryant and others say the GOP is doing what it can to put women in power. Women currently lead the GOP caucuses in both chambers of the state Legislature. Patterson specifically called out the need to recruit qualified women when she announced her bid for state party chair this winter. She has also led California Trailblazers, a political group backed by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy that aims to support younger, more diverse GOP candidates.
The surge in female candidates on the left has been buoyed by outside groups and movements, like Emily’s List, that train women to run, and then in some cases spend millions on their behalf to help get them through the finish lines. Several similar organizations are active on the state level here. Rival efforts focused on GOP women are few and far between. Pye says that has to change.
“If and when the Republican Party gets serious about electing women, we will do a bit of a stealing of a page from the playbooks of the Democrats,” she says. “We’ve got to be honest about ourselves about who can run and who will run.”
Pye stresses the need for the party and its allies to go beyond lip service, focusing on training and supporting women who have what she calls the three C’s of a strong campaign: a candidate, cash to fund the race, and city or county experience that can help make the case to voters that you know how to govern.
She has tried to help fill that gap in her role as president of California Women Lead. The nonpartisan nonprofit seeks to recruit and train women of all political stripes for elected office at all levels and political appointments. But given the current gender parity gap, the group plans to double down on opportunities to recruit moderate, business-oriented women to run for swing seats in the state Legislature. Multiple factors, including the dwindling numbers for Republicans as a whole and an unwillingness to be associated with the current administration for more moderate women, have complicated some of those efforts in the past.
“We need more women, we want to see parity. We want to see 50 percent of the Legislature, and I don’t think you’re going to do that just by getting progressive women elected because there are parts of California that are still not progressive,” says Rachel Michelin, the organization’s former executive director and CEO. “So let’s find a woman in those areas who can be a fit for the district.”
There are some additional efforts to bolster women in the party. Morgan Murtaugh, who ran for Congress in Southern California last year, is starting a podcast to highlight “badass women in positions of leadership on the right” in California and beyond. On the national level, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik launched a new PAC to support female GOP candidates. But those efforts alone likely won’t be enough, especially given the broader electoral challenges Republicans face in California.
Bryant says she’d like to see the state party continue to “step up” on the issue, especially when it comes to encouraging women to run for local office. Any resource commitments would ultimately be up to the board of directors.
“We really do try to find as many women candidates as we can. All of us are of a mindset where if there’s a choice, that it’s great to have a woman candidate,” she says.
Patterson agrees. She says she wants to see the party “super-
size” those recruiting efforts, though one key hurdle will be finding the money to make it happen. “We do need to find answers, on the funding side especially, and nationalize that and have money coming in [for] women who are taking the leap to go and run,” she says.
While Pye isn’t convinced that the party is really ready to do — and spend — what it takes to balance the scales, she is hopeful that high levels of civic engagement among young people who might be inspired to run could, in the long run, be a game-changer.
“It’s up to those of us who can, who are still members of the Republican Party, to help find and fund those candidates who better reflect their communities but also reflect our Republican values. I think that’ll be a challenge,” she says. “But I look to young people to help me make my way through a lot of challenges these days. It sounds corny, but I do think this next generation of voters is whose going to make the difference.”