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The blue wave’s female tinge

14 December 2018

It’s being called the new “Year of the Woman,” and it augurs badly for the Republicans

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Formidable: House minority leader — and likely next speaker — Nancy Pelosi outside the White House with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer following a meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Formidable: House minority leader — and likely next speaker — Nancy Pelosi outside the White House with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer following a meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo


In the aftermath of the US midterm elections, one facet shines brightly — the very female tinge to the blue wave that swept the Democrats to power in the House of Representatives. This, and the focus on women’s issues that will inevitably follow, highlights the very real gender problems confronting Donald Trump and Republicans in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Polling and analyses show that anger at Trump and his policies drove women to stand for office in record-breaking numbers, to donate to progressive political causes and to get out and vote for Democrats. As a result, a record 116 women were elected to the 116th Congress; they will join ten other women in the Senate who did not face re-election. There were 104 women in the previous Congress.

An analysis of the freshman class highlights the very partisan nature of the wave. Of ten newly elected senators, all three Democrats are women and two of seven Republicans are women. Twenty-four women now serve in the Senate, a record number.

The majority of the gains for women took place in the House of Representatives. Democrats elected eighty-nine women (of whom thirty-six are newly elected) and they now comprise 37.6 per cent of the Democrat caucus, up from 32.0 per cent in the last Congress. Many of them did the heavy lifting: women won more than 60 per cent of the forty-three House seats that Democrats flipped.

Republicans, meanwhile, elected thirteen women to the House, with only two new members, down from twenty-five previously. Women are now just 6.5 per cent of their caucus, the lowest female Republican representation since the 1992–93 term.

The Democrats’ female freshman class brought with it a lot of diversity, serving only to highlight further the predominance of older white male Republicans. Thirteen are women of colour and many are firsts: the first two Muslim women; the first two Native American women; the first two Hispanics from Texas; the first African-American women from both Massachusetts and Connecticut; the youngest woman ever elected to Congress; and a previous secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of women with young children has more than doubled.

It’s being called the new “Year of the Woman” — evoking 1992, when women went to the polls angered by the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and energised by a record-breaking number of women running for federal office. They delivered an unprecedented number of women in the 103rd Congress, initiating a period of unparalleled advancement for women in politics.

It is revealing that the “Year of the Woman” bypassed the Republicans. Their only significant gain was Marsha Blackburn, who becomes the first woman to represent Tennessee in the Senate. A number of strong female candidates on the Republican side were not successful. Trump viciously mocked Mia Love of Utah and Barbara Comstock of Virginia for losing, although if anything, their rejection of Trump probably made their races closer than they might otherwise have been, especially in Love’s case.

Much of the blame for the waves that swept Democrat women into the House can be sheeted home to a growing women’s backlash against Trump. An analysis of midterm voting by the Center for American Women and Politics finds an overwhelming 92 per cent of black women supported a Democrat for the House in Tuesday’s election, as did 73 per cent of Latinas. These numbers reflect their minimal support for Trump in 2016.

White women are considerably more pro-Trump, but decreasingly so. In 2016 he got 47 per cent of their overall vote, and 62 per cent of the votes of white women without a college education. In the midterms, exit polling by the Pew Research Center highlighted how this version of the blue wave was driven by changes in white women’s voting. And again, education level was a bright, dividing line.

While white, college-educated women are a reliably Democrat-leaning bloc of long standing, this year their support for Democrats over Republicans was 20 percentage points, compared to 7 percentage points in 2016. Non-college-educated white women still voted mostly Republican, but their support dropped 13 percentage points from 2016.

Advocacy groups and political action committees, or PACs, provided crucial support for female Democrats standing for public office, and encouraged women to support them. Research reveals that “women’s representation policy demanders” — groups that advocate for greater support of female candidates — exist in both parties. But gender and gender issues play a much larger role in the political decisions of Democrat donors. They are also much more generous.

In 2018 women contributed more than US$159 million to women running as Democrat congressional candidates and just over US$19 million to Republican female congressional candidates. At the same time, powerful progressive women’s PACs outspent conservative women’s PACs, with Emily’s List raising US$110 million this election cycle compared to the combined US$1.2 million raised by the Susan B. Anthony List, Right Now Women and Winning for Women.

The Women’s Philanthropy Trust attributes the dramatic increase in progressive women’s fundraising to “rage giving.” Women donated to Democrat female candidates with the express purpose of electing more women to office, and then they voted accordingly. According to exit polls, of the 45 per cent of voters who said it was very important to elect more women to office, 82 per cent voted for Democrats and 17 per cent for Republicans. In contrast, Republicans are failing because they are not comfortable with gender politics and encouraging and incentivising more female candidates.


The Democrats’ majority in the House will bring major oversight of and investigations into the behaviour of Trump, his family, his associates and his administration, and a push for legislative initiatives that address key issues like healthcare, climate change and border protection. The influx of women will help shape that agenda, with women likely to head up at least six of the most influential House committees. They will almost certainly be led by Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

Pelosi is the highest-ranked woman in the history of US politics; as speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011 she stood second in line to the presidency, behind the vice-president. No one is more capable of at once keeping the Democrats united in fighting against the exigencies and excesses of the Trump administration, and dividing opinion both inside and outside her party.

In one sense it is very appropriate that she will once again pick up the speaker’s gavel. It’s about much more than having a woman back in a leadership role. She has formidable political, policy and procedural knowledge and skills. She is a negotiator without peer. And she has the fundraising capabilities to support her party. She has been described as “the most effective congressional leader of modern times.” All of her skills will be needed if the Democrats are to use their majority in the House effectively and to ensure that they are in a winning position in 2020.

But her skills also make her a clear target for Trump and the Republicans, who have endlessly demonised her and run against her in their campaigns. And now there is opposition to her continued leadership from some of the younger, newer Democrats who are pushing for generational change. In many ways this generational divide mirrors that which surfaced among women when Hillary Clinton ran for president.

Despite this, Pelosi ran unopposed and was easily won party suppoort for the speakership on 28 November. The vote to confirm her must now go to the House, where she needs just a simple majority (218 votes). It’s unlikely any Republicans will support her, so she must claw back about half of the thirty-two Democrats who voted against her and unify the party before 3 January, the first day of the new Congress.

Pelosi is working hard to achieve this; the last thing she needs is Trump’s compromising offer to provide her with enough Republican votes to win. Realistically, at least for the next two years, she is the Democrats’ only viable option.

Already she is giving the White House and Senate leaders a glimpse of the future, as she and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer negotiate a budget deal that must include Trump’s demands for funds for a border wall in order to avoid a government shutdown before Christmas.

Pelosi and the Democrats will certainly turn their attention next year to dealing with the erosion of Obamacare and increasingly regressive policies on women’s health. The administration has rolled back requirements that insurance plans cover contraceptives with no out-of-pocket costs and undermined provisions ensuring coverage for pre-existing conditions. There are continual attacks on family-planning funding and the ability of providers to offer the full range of pregnancy-related services, regardless of whether these use federal funds.

There will be broad-based support from Democrats for these actions. Many of the women who won in the midterms ran on platforms explicitly boosting Obamacare and reproductive rights. Female governors and Democrat-controlled legislatures in the states will also be important in this effort. On the other hand, serious opposition to these efforts will come from a Senate whose members next year will include four pro-life female senators. Representation of the one-third of Republicans who support abortion rights will be down to just two Republicans: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. With judge Brett Kavanaugh’s placement on the Supreme Court, there are concerns about the consequences of any effort to overturn Roe v Wade.


The outcome of the 2018 midterms isn’t necessarily a predictor of the 2020 presidential election, but it does signal the strengths and weakness each party confronts. The obvious reluctance of Trump in particular, and Republicans in general, to respond to their “problem with women” poses one of many issues they confront headed into the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

“Wake up dudes,” said retiring Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recently. “We have to step up our game… I encourage our party leaders to be more aggressive in seeking out and helping younger candidates, female candidates and candidates of colour.”

But when Republican representative Elise Stefanik announced she planned to focus on helping other female Republicans in primary races win seats, the chairman-elect of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Tom Emmer, called the idea a “mistake.” Liz Cheney, who was recently elected GOP conference chairwoman, has said she does not see any need for change on policies for women: “I’ve always felt like it was very paternalistic to do what the Democrats do. It’s offensive to women.”

The depth of Republicans’ problem with women will come to the fore as female candidates for president in 2020 step forward, and we will see just how misogynistic Trump can be. There are plenty of examples from the 2016 campaign — not just his gender-based attacks on Clinton but also his nastiness towards Carly Fiorina, who ran as a Republican candidate.

It will be interesting to see if any Republican, male or female, will be brave enough to challenge Trump in the primary, but a number of Democrat women are exploring whether they will enter the race. Among them are Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), who regularly invokes Trump’s ireSenator Kamala Harris (California) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (New York). An October Axios poll shows Trump would lose the 2020 election against every woman mentioned as a possible Democratic opponent. He should hope that Michelle Obama means it when she says she won’t run.

There is certainly an expectation that the galvanisation of women seen in 2018 will carry over into 2020. It would be unprecedented for multiple women to seek presidential nomination and it would create an unpredictable and potentially divisive dynamic in the primary. But it could also heighten scrutiny by politicians and voters of policies affecting women’s lives and the need to improve the treatment of women in politics. •

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Message for the nation: Victorian premier Daniel Andrews at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Adelaide today. Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

Message for the nation: Victorian premier Daniel Andrews at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Adelaide today. Kelly Barnes/AAP Image