WASHINGTON – Week after week at the U.S. Capitol, the Republican congressional delegation from Texas gathers for a ritual Thursday lunch. And year after year, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth has been the lone woman sitting at the table.
"I keep 'em under control most of the time, but not all the time. I do my best," Granger said with a laugh of her 24 male GOP colleagues.
"It just is puzzling," she added about the disparity. "And I talk to young women all the time and say their voices need to be heard."
The Democratic side of the state's congressional roster is little better, with two women, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, among 11. In total, that means Texas has three women serving in a 36-member House delegation, plus two male senators.
And its been nearly 20 years since the last new woman from Texas — Granger — entered Congress, if you set aside ex-Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs’ largely ceremonial two-month stint in late 2006.
Republicans and Democrats tend to agree that electing women is good for party, country and Congress, and there is tangible evidence that both parties invest in trying to elect more of them. But actually doing so, particularly in Texas, has proved easier said than done.
About one-fifth of Congress is female, with 84 women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. The partisan breakdown leans heavily in the Democratic column. As a dominant state in national politics, Texas' dearth of females is a top concern for those who want to see women advance.
“Texas fits the profile that we have been so concerned about: the stagnation of women in the legislature, which is leading to the fact that we’re not seeing a growth in the number of women at the federal level in states as significant as Texas,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.
In total, seven Texas women have walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol as members of Congress. Two served nominal terms that lasted less than a year. Proportionately, the Texas Legislature is better – but still ranks 37th in the country in female representation, according to Walsh's data. Thirty-six women serve in the Texas House and Senate, about 20 percent of the Legislature.
California, the only comparable state in population, has 21 females in Congress, including its two U.S. senators and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Arizona, which observers say mirrors Texas ideologically, has three females in its 11-person federal delegation.
While most states are moving in the direction of electing more females to office, Texas, home to legendary figures like Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards and Annette Strauss, is regressing. In just the last three years, Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison retired and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis flamed out.
“Texas used to have this culture of political women who were really notable,” said Walsh. “We used to talk about ‘What’s in the water in Texas?’”
So why is there is such a drought now?
Nearly every state and national political operative interviewed for this story pointed to one major culprit: the congressional map.
The Republican-dominated Texas Legislature re-drew the state's congressional districts after the 2010 census aiming to secure as many Republican seats as possible. But the new districts also protected incumbents. With little turnover comes fewer opportunities.
"There are members of Congress in the delegation, I'm sure, that have a very strong base in their district ... and their constituents are happy with them," Jackson Lee said. "But [female representation] is something that we have to put on the minds of Texans."
Other Democrats are more blunt, arguing that any incumbent protection is going to favor men.
But there have been open-seat races in recent years, thanks in most part to Texas picking up four seats in the last census. And it’s not that women are getting beat. They aren’t even running.
Since the new lines were drawn, there have been at least a half-dozen open primary races where women either did not run or ran disorganized and underfunded campaigns.
In contrast, the mid-1990s marked the high point for women in Texas politics.
Johnson won her Dallas-based House seat in 1992. Hutchison followed up with her 1993 special election win and became the first female Texas senator. 1994 brought Jackson Lee to Congress, followed by Granger in 1996.
It was a national trend, partially spurred by the controversial 1991 Clarence Thomas U.S. Supreme Court hearings.
Democrats are quick to blame the Republican political culture for the dearth of Texas women in Congress. Texas, after all, has 24 safe Republican House seats, 11 safe Democratic seats and a single toss-up in the southwest part of the state.
When Republicans create a hostile environment on issues like birth control and abortion, Democrats argue, it makes sense that few women in a state as conservative as Texas would want to run.
"There’s no room for a Kay Bailey Hutchison in today’s Republican party,” said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, an organization that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.
But socially conservative women are winning races elsewhere in the country.
"It's not true. Look at the state Legislature," Granger said of the Democratic argument. "[Women] are in huge numbers, but also in very important positions, so that's not the situation."
But nearly every one of the dozen or so Texas and national female operatives of both parties who watch and work on congressional campaigns interviewed for this story blamed, at least in part, a basic chauvinism on the part of voters either in Texas or more generally in the South.
“I think there are cultural differences … especially in a traditional society like Texas,” said a female national Republican operative who’s recruited female candidates. “We’re still overcoming old societal roles in a lot of ways.”
And it’s not just a Republican problem. Democrats voice similar concerns about the voters rejecting females in some of their own Texas congressional districts.
A National Problem: Getting Women to Run
The rare female who serves in Congress while raising young children typically has a child-care option handy — usually grandparents living nearby. The simple distance to Washington discourages women from running if they have children.
"I really believe it has to do with being physically away," Granger said. "Where, if I'm serving in Austin, I can get in the car and if traffic's not too bad, I can be home in two hours. This is a different situation."
The Washington commute is the biggest concern female candidates raise when approached by party recruiters.
One GOP consultant said there is actually an imaginary line from Illinois down to Texas to the DFW airport past which female recruitment becomes even more difficult.
Texas is close enough to Washington, with enough direct flights, that constituents expect their members to return home every weekend – meaning relocating one’s family to Washington is not an option.
But Texas is far enough that a mother could not race home within a few hours for a family emergency, unlike members who can drive or take the train or shuttle home.
Other operatives say that the statehouse, specifically the opportunity to have a greater impact in the Texas Senate, is another deterrent to would-be federal candidates. The Texas legislative session only lasts several months, and education, often a top issue for females, can be more directly addressed at the state level, said a GOP consultant.
Texas GOP communications director Aaron Whitehead agreed.
“From the party perspective, you see some of our most talented and effective elected officials are at the statehouse,” he said.
“Obviously, I can’t speak to each individual’s motivation on which office they run for,” he added. “If you look at Sen. [Jane] Nelson as an example, perhaps staying in Texas is where they can make the most benefit for their community.”
And operatives also point to the high-profile mayors in the state.
But more than anything, Jackson Lee blames the pressure that increasingly expensive campaigns put on working mothers who would otherwise have political ambitions.
“The '90s … was a moment of sanity where people could run with signs and certainly a reasonable amount of money,” she said in an interview near the House floor, decrying the pressure that a $1 million to $3 million campaign price tag places on candidates.
“In Texas, there’s a huge media market,” she added. “It makes it very challenging.”
Consultants across the board agree that women enter politics from less-moneyed professions and have a smaller fundraising network than the average male candidate.
Granger dismissed money as issue, noting that she was a top fundraiser in her freshman class.
Walsh said that women keep up, but it is a harder haul. “They raise comparable amounts of money to each other,” she said. “It just takes women longer. “
Money is the crux of the EMILY’s List strategy to elect women. The group’s acronym is “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” and it aims to support female candidates early in Democratic primaries. For years, Republicans have silently wished for a GOP equivalent.
But even EMILY’s List has not played in any of the Texas Democratic open seats in recent years.
Congress is the problem, according to Jason Stanford, a Democratic consultant. The operative, who worked for Ann Richards, pointed to the increasing paralysis at the U.S. Capitol as the culprit.
“I don’t know a lot of women who like to sit around and hear themselves talk,” he said. “I know a hell of a lot of men who do.”
“It’s really, really hard to get elected,” he added. “And then … you don’t get much done, so what’s the point?”