Hold these two thoughts:
First: Thursday’s congressional swearing-in will reflect the stunning success of the Democrats’ ground game at turning out minorities — a strategy that stretched across Native American reservations, college campuses, Hispanic supermarkets, and crowded urban neighborhoods.
Second: The 114th Congress will mirror the greatest (albeit far from adequate) increase in women since 1992, from the current 17 percent to 18.6 percent in both chambers combined.
Two independent thoughts? Hardly. Rather than minority turnout and women’s political rise being on parallel tracks, they intersect. And unless Republicans take note, that intersection spells danger for not only our two-party system, but also our democracy.
Let’s start with pre-election research and exit polls. In March, when asked whether having more congresswomen would be positive, blacks (59 percent) and Latinos (62 percent) were much more likely than whites (44 percent) to say yes. Among all voters, 47 percent cared deeply about having more female leadership, yet for people under age 30 that number was 54 percent. And, no surprise, women of all races were twice as enthusiastic as men in their parties.
A reasonable conclusion is that if Republicans want to woo Latinos, blacks, and young people as well as women (which they must, or continue their downward slide), they should put forward a large cadre of women candidates. Even if the GOP is unable to attract Democratic voters to switch — although evidence says some Democratic-leaning women will — having high-quality women candidates may energize or at least maintain their current constituency, since a whopping 71 percent of female Republicans said Congress would function better with more women.
Few who say they want more women will vote for just any woman. The talents of the candidates, party registration, and get-out-the-vote drives all count. But in our closely divided country any factor can make the decisive difference.
Yes, issues matter. This fall, women turned out in droves to defeat the party of candidates like Richard Mourdock and Congressman Todd Akin, whose misogynist comments on rape were repulsive to most Americans. Maybe the two needed more women nearby like Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who commented after, “We had some candidates who . . . said some really stupid things.”
Unfortunately, that senator is alone — and leaving. For decades, Democrats have bested Republicans by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in electing women to Congress. Rather than rectifying that imbalance, this year the Grand Old Party mustered only 11 percent female candidates (compared to Democrats’ 26 percent). Progress is even more lopsided: the entire gain of three women in the Senate was Democratic. No surprise, since in addition to progressive women’s advocacy groups, the party doubled down. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Senator Patty Murray were two of three queenmakers heading recruiting and fundraising. Republicans had no women in such positions.
This critique of male dominance in the GOP may surprise those who conjure up Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin, but the paucity of other Micheles and Sarahs in the Republican caucus speaks more to tokenism than commitment.
Why should I, a devoted Democrat, care? Because, like most Americans, I want a well-functioning government. Long before we reach gender parity, women legislators will have an impact on the content and style of governing. They’re perceived as less corrupt, plus they bring perspectives different from the men they’re sitting next to, creating a better-rounded agenda. A 2009 Stanford/University of Chicago study says women not only sponsor more legislation, but also attract more co-sponsors and more support for their districts.
Most important, women may be our best chance at breaking through disastrous partisan gridlock. For decades I’ve worked with women from war zones who reach across front lines strewn with the bodies of their sons to forge reconciliation with mothers of the enemy. As Congress operates in an increasingly acrimonious space, politicians on each side are locked in a stare-down. Yet three weeks ago the other current and future women in the Senate nodded agreement when Susan Collins told Diane Sawyer, “If [women] were in charge of the Senate and of the administration, we would have a budget deal by now . . . With all deference to our male colleagues, women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.”
In a dozen other settings, Washington women continually put aside partisanship to jointly lead caucuses or committees, dine together regularly, and take turns batting and fielding.
The question remains whether Republicans will realize that, not only for self-preservation but also the preservation of our way of governing, they must factor in how the increasingly important views of minorities intersect with female political leadership. We need a host of women elected in both parties. For the sake of our democracy, let’s hope Republicans figure that out.Former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt lecturer in public policy at The Harvard Kennedy School.