For female Republicans looking to become freshmen in the Texas Legislature, last year was the year of the woman — or, if you want to include both of them, women.
Candy Noble and Angela Paxton were the only freshman female Republicans elected to the Texas House and Senate, respectively, amid a surge of women running for office.
Noble and Paxton exemplify what’s widely viewed as a dearth of female GOP lawmakers in the Legislature. In the Senate, the number of Republican women serving is at an all-time high, but they make up less than a third of the chamber’s GOP-held seats. Across the rotunda, the gender gap is far more visible: Of the 83 Republicans serving, six are women. Democratic women, by comparison, hold 27 of the party’s seats.
As recently as 2012, 19 Republican women served in the House.
“When I first came in, we had a lot of Republican women and then [we had] more the next few election cycles,” said state Rep. Geanie Morrison, of Victoria, who was first elected in 1998 and whose tenure is tied for the longest for a Republican woman in the Texas House. “We need to reach out and particularly recruit the next generation of young Republican women to get involved.”
The lack of female GOP lawmakers isn’t confined to Texas. There has been a steady decline overall in the number of Republican women elected to serve in legislatures across the country and in Congress. What stands out in the current makeup of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers and political operatives say, is that after an election year in which voters likely saw more women on the ballot than usual, only one party saw major gains in female representation.
“As a body, we don’t go out and recruit actively,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who chairs the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee. “I think the Democrats have done a better job of looking for females to run in races, whereas Republicans just look at whoever comes through. We ought to maybe learn something from that playbook.”
Several political operatives and former and current lawmakers chalk up the partisan gender gap at the Capitol to a number of factors: a lack of influential conservative organizations to support would-be candidates, a greater emphasis in the Republican party on recruiting candidates based on experience over gender and intraparty politics that lead some Republicans to alienate people — especially women — with more moderate views.
“In my last session … I felt like I had to make votes based on my party affiliation and not what felt right in my heart of hearts,” said Patricia Harless, a Republican from Spring who stepped down from her House seat after the 2015 legislative session. “At that point, if I can’t be true to myself and do what I think is right, then I don’t need to be there.
“When I left office, I thought it would be easier to help recruit women, but getting a commitment to run for the state Legislature is literally like pulling teeth. Women don’t want to have to fight their party to do what’s best.”
Despite Republican women’s modest numbers, the party still holds a considerable majority in both chambers. But, as Austin-based Republican consultant Adryana Aldeen points out, “the party can grow” when it comes to getting more women, Hispanics and millennials to run for office.
“We have strong Republican women groups across the state, but yes, the party can improve,” Aldeen said. “Hopefully in the next election we can run behind and beside the women running. I’m not disappointed with our Republican women. I just want to see more elected.”
That’s not to say women aren’t trying. During last year’s primaries, Emily Kebodeaux Cook, a first-time political candidate, was one of many Republican women who challenged male incumbents or ran for open seats at the Legislature.
In Cook’s case, she ran against incumbent Rep. Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, who won the primary with 59 percent of the vote, compared with Cook’s 41 percent. Cook said she ran because she disagreed with Bailes' voting record during the past legislative session. She added, however, that “the Republican Party will be stronger overall when it’s not just one side of the aisle that has elected officials who look like our daughters.”
But campaigning as a Republican woman comes with its own set of hurdles. Cook said when voters brought up her gender as she and her team went canvassing, those questions often came from other women — rather than men — which she found “astonishing.”
“While a man might ask me where I stood on policy matters,” Cook said, “the first question from another woman would be, ‘How can you balance raising a young family with serving in elected office?’”
The gender skew of politics extends far beyond the state Legislature. At the national level, news outlets are pouncing on the gender disparity in Congress. Earlier this year, West Virginia’s Carol Miller was the only Republican freshman woman to enter the 435-member House, joining an already small group of 12 female GOP lawmakers. In the U.S. Senate, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee was the only female freshman Republican to enter the 100-member body.
Anne Moses, the president and founder of Ignite, a group focused on getting more women to run for office, said that after the 2016 election, there were three Democratic women in Congress for every Republican woman.
After the 2018 election, the ratio jumped to 5-to-1, Moses said.
“Regardless of what political party you align with, that should be very disturbing,” she said. “If we think there’s a benefit to having women’s voices in Congress — or in any governing body — then we need it on both sides of the aisle.”
In the Texas Legislature, Republican men are more than aware of the need for more gender diversity in their ranks.
“We need female candidates in the Republican Party more than ever before,” House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said during a speech Wednesday to the Texas Young Republicans that largely emphasized the need for Republicans to increase its appeal to women voters.
But several current and former female lawmakers praised those in power for vaulting GOP women into chair positions. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tapped each of the five returning female senators to lead committees. In the House, Bonnen appointed three of the five returning GOP women — Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Morrison — as committee chairs. State Rep. John Zerwas also named Sarah Davis of West University Place the chair of a House budget subcommittee.
“The Republican women of the Texas House are unequivocally instrumental to the success of our caucus and our chamber,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “Our Republican leadership has placed their full faith in the abilities of each of these women and remains confident they will utilize their platforms to inspire the next generation of Republican Texas women.”
Even the two freshmen will have sway inside the Capitol: Paxton earned a coveted spot as vice chair of the Senate’s property tax committee, which will shepherd this session’s priority legislation. Noble, meanwhile, was selected to serve on the policy committee for the the Texas House Republican Caucus. Neither returned requests for comment.
“Republican Texas women are out there,” Button said. “I want Republican Texas women, particularly racial minorities, to see that they, too, can run for office and hold leadership positions in our government.”
And looking ahead to what’s expected to be a blockbuster 2020 election, many Republicans see a prime opportunity to increase the clout of GOP women.
“We need to do a good job of recruiting for the 12 Republican seats we lost and find 12 good, strong ladies with conservative values to run in those seats,” Springer said.
The Texas Federation of Republican Women, a group that actively supports GOP candidates running for political office, said it’s already laying the foundation to help those considering political careers. Karen Newton, the group’s president, said it’s holding a “development class” in March to help prepare women thinking about running in 2020 — what she hopes will be the first step toward having a Legislature that’s “more balanced and more representative of the state.”
Morrison said she’s been working with the group to help recruit and mentor GOP women interested in running for office so “they know they have a support system in place.”
Republican men, too, are talking about the need to have more women serve in the Legislature.
“We just need to get [strong, conservative women] to run,” said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who chairs the House Corrections Committee. “Obviously, the more people you have at the table from diverse backgrounds, the most likely it is you will develop strategies and policies and solutions that can appeal to a broad majority.”
Even Democrats are hoping more women will be serving in the Capitol come 2020 — regardless of party.
“Frankly, I’d be happy to just have more women in the Legislature. Period,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. “I’m a chick who wants more chicks to work with and can see how awesome it is.”
Klick said that getting more conservative female voices in the room starts with Republicans simply asking well-known, respected community leaders to consider careers in politics.
The Fort Worth representative added that she would “like to see more women running and being successful but in our side of the aisle.” But she’s staying optimistic and said the low number of GOP women serving can be an opportunity for those in the Capitol to have their voices magnified.
“We’re still here and we still matter,” Klick said. “There’s just fewer of us.”