The Partisan Gap Among Women in Elective Office in 2020 and Beyond

The 2020 elections saw robust gains for Republican women in state legislatures and Congress. Republican women increased their numbers from 13 to 31 in the U.S. House of Representatives, and from 662 to 729 in state legislatures nationally. The impressive performance of Republican women in elected office led CBS News to label 2020 as “The Year of The Republican Woman.” To those who believe that American democracy will be stronger—more legitimate, more representative, and produce better policy outcomes—if its members more fully embody the diversity of the American population, the gains for Republican women were welcome news.

Since the early 1990s, almost all of the gains for women in state legislatures and Congress have occurred on the Democratic side of the aisle, resulting in a dramatic partisan gap. Overall, Democrats contribute 72% of the women in the 117th Congress, and a similar pattern exists at the state level. Women will never reach parity in elective office unless both Republican women and Democratic women increase their numbers. And while many associate “women’s issues” with a progressive policy agenda, the reality is that close to half of American women lean in a more conservative direction and typically support Republican candidates.

The Structural Causes of the Partisan Gap

The causes of the partisan gap—the steady success of Democratic women and the plateauing of Republican women’s representation—have not been the product of Donald Trump’s election or any single election cycle. Rather, they are driven by long-term structural changes to the U.S. electoral environment. Research has examined how American partisan politics have undergone ideological, regional, and racial realignments over the past half century, but insufficient attention has been paid to the consequences of these realignments for women’s representation. Each of these realignments has contributed to the growth of the partisan gender gap by creating conditions that help Democratic women run and win while erecting obstacles for Republican women.

  • Southern partisan realignment: The heavily conservative climate of the South used to act as a barrier for women in both parties, but as conservatism has become concentrated almost exclusively on the Republican side of the partisan aisle, the Southern electoral landscape only acts to constrain the election of Republican women. Even though the South is the region where the Republican Party does the best, southern Republican women hold relatively fewer of their party’s seats (15% of Republican state legislators in the South are women, compared to 21% nationally.) Republican women have their lowest levels of representation in heavily Republican states that enjoy the most opportunities for building seniority, which is critical for attaining party leadership positions and wining higher office.
  • Racial realignment: The South no longer hinders the representation of Democratic women in a parallel manner. In fact, Democratic women have made remarkable gains in southern states, making up 42% of southern Democrats in Congress and of Democrats in southern state legislatures—with women of color leading the surge. Women of color have made gains in Congress and state legislatures at a faster rate than white women, a pattern that has benefitted the Democratic Party almost exclusively since over 90% of women of color in elective office are Democrats. In the 117th Congress, women are 43% of the Members of Congress of color, whereas they are only 22% of the white members of Congress. A similar pattern exists in state legislatures, especially in the South.
  • Ideological realignment: Although at one point in the 20th century, the Republican Party was arguably more progressive on issues of gender equality than the Democratic Party—it embraced the Equal Rights Amendment in its platform before the Democrats did for example—the parties have undergone a significant realignment. Today the Democratic Party is vocal and active in making gender parity in elective office a goal. The party is also comfortable making specific efforts to recruit women, and its decentralized open culture has enabled outside groups, most notable EMILY’s LIST to act as a recruiting arm of the party. The Republican Party’s more hierarchical culture, as well as its individualistic ideology which rejects the idea of explicit female recruitment as problematic “identity politics,” tends to reproduce white male majorities and leaves groups interested in recruiting Republican women in a precarious and weakened position.

The Partisan Gap in 2020 and Beyond

The modest success of Republican women in 2020 is in part due to women in the Republican Party—especially Representative Elise Stefanik—defying Republican traditions to call out the lack of women in the party as a problem and specifically recruit and fund women candidates, starting early in the 2020 election cycle. Republicans also benefited from having a more diverse group of women candidates. Republican women of color in Congress increased from one in the 116th Congress to five in the 117th Congress. If Republicans continue with such efforts, they may continue the gains made in 2020. However, the huge prior advantage of Democratic women over Republican women coupled with high re-election rates will make the closing the partisan gap a steep challenge.

It remains unclear whether Republican Party leaders are interested or able to make sustained efforts to recruit more women candidates, especially those of color. The Republican Party has pushed one of its women members, Liz Cheney, out of a leadership position and failed to elect the widow of a deceased Republican member to an open seat in Texas. Indeed, the regional, racial, and ideological forces behind the partisan gap for candidates and office holders portend a further widening, not narrowing, of the partisan gap among women in elective office—unless Republican leaders across the board to take strong, proactive steps are taken to counteract those forces.

How Inequality and Politics Influence Government Responses to Natural Disasters

By Fernando Tormos, Gustavo García-López, and Mary Angelica Painter

After a hurricane strikes, governments and electric utility companies go to work restoring a sense of normalcy to their communities. Typical disaster recovery efforts include providing food and shelter to the displaced and medical services to the injured, and turning the power back on. While governments and electric utility companies claim that they do not give preferential treatment to specific groups while performing these services, people on the ground have questioned whether such a claim is true in practice. Who is right? When disasters occur, do governments and utility companies place a priority on helping some while neglecting others?

The 2017 hurricane season provides ample evidence of the inequalities that mark disaster recoveries. Within one month, hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, making that season one of the costliest to date and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Hurricane Maria caused a complete power outage in Puerto Rico, the largest blackout that America has ever incurred. This outage is a tragic natural experiment that provides a unique opportunity to understand prioritization during disaster recovery processes. Although a variety of factors determine the groups to which governments and utility companies are most responsive, our research shows that social vulnerability and support for the ruling party are key predictors.

Some Communities are More Vulnerable to Disasters

Everyone is vulnerable to disasters, but some are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerability refers to a community’s exposure to risk, loss, and harm; in particular, social vulnerability describes how resilient a community is, and how the attributes of a particular population will shape not just the impact of a disaster, but also dictate that population’s ability to recover from it. Socioeconomically marginalized groups exhibit marked social vulnerability: they tend to be less prepared for disasters, experience greater impact from those disasters, and—tellingly—also elicit less government responsiveness during disaster recoveries.

Our research shows that, in practice, socioeconomic conditions and partisan politics influence responses to disasters—even though governments and utility companies claim to prioritize the needs of critical infrastructure like hospitals and emergency operation centers. We employed statistical models to explain the distribution of power restoration crews after hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, and showed that communities with greater numbers of socially vulnerable people waited longer for crews to begin working in their neighborhoods. Our research also found that power restoration crews took fewer days to reach communities that supported the ruling party than those that did not.

How Can Governments and Utility Companies Improve Disaster Recoveries?

To create a more level playing field, governments and utility companies can take steps to achieve equity in disaster response, and save lives in doing so.

  • Prioritize vulnerable communities: Current disaster resource distribution practices tend to leave those in the greatest need behind. Governments and electric utility companies can reduce loss of life and suffering by officially prioritizing vulnerable communities, as they do with critical infrastructure.
  • Invest in disaster preparedness in vulnerable communities: Inequality during disasters is often a reflection of existing inequalities. Governments and utilities can enhance disaster preparedness through greater investment in vulnerable communities on flood prevention, modernizing electric grids, and transitioning away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuel for energy generation.
  • Monitor political disparities: Utility companies and governments tend to coordinate disaster recoveries without much oversight from the communities they are serving (since those communities without power and have a reduced capacity to communicate.) Increased monitoring of how disaster resources are distributed can bring public scrutiny to bear on disaster response, and reduce the tendency to give preferential treatment to communities that are politically supportive of the ruling party.

Preparing for and Recovering from More Frequent Extreme Weather

Climate change is expected to make extreme weather more frequent and damaging. When hurricanes strike, outages will ensue. These outages are more than just inconveniences; they tend to result in loss of life, increased hospitalizations, medical supply shortages, and disruptions of healthcare systems. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and especially those people within them who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment and procedures like ventilators and dialysis, are exposed to greater risks and tend to wait longer for restoration. Prioritizing vulnerable communities during disaster preparedness and recovery holds the potential to reduce loss of life and alleviate their burden of powerlessness.

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