One Reason Why Republicans Don’t Have More Women in the Senate

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 10, 2017 · 8:58 AM EDT

Women make up less than 10 percent of the Republican senators in Congress, and the GOP’s most qualified (and only top-tier) female hopeful just walked off the Senate playing field with nary a protest from Republican leaders.

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner’s challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has been one of the worst-kept secrets of the cycle. The third-term congresswoman, a former United States ambassador and onetime co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, had $2.8 million in her campaign account at the end of March. She had been doing everything a future Senate candidate was supposed to do, right up until early last week when she announced she was running for re-election to her 2nd District seat instead.

I’m not questioning Wagner’s commitment to her family or the community she mentioned in her announcement, but I’m convinced the congresswoman would still be on pace to challenge McCaskill if there was evidence that the Republican establishment was excited about the prospect of her running for the Senate. We currently have McCaskill’s re-election race is rated a Toss-up. 

What might be most remarkable about Wagner’s announcement is that she bowed out of a race that lacks another serious contender. It’s clear that some Republicans in Missouri and Washington, D.C., are enamored with Josh Hawley, the 37-year-old state attorney general who has been in elected office for six months. But there is no guarantee he will enter the Senate race. If he doesn’t, leaving Republicans without Wagner or Hawley, it could be a colossal miscalculation in a prime takeover target.

Of course, diversity for the sake of diversity is not good, but it’s hard to get a straight answer from Republicans as to why more wasn’t done to encourage Wagner, particularly in the absence of another serious, announced challenger. And with a small pool of willing, capable, and qualified women to run for the Senate across the country, it seems like the party should embrace the ones who come along.

With 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, Republicans have plenty of opportunities to add to their ranks, including adding women to their Senate conference. But there is a dearth of women in position to win.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, 59, could develop into a credible candidate in Wisconsin. But she hasn’t made an official announcement and could have a tough slog through a crowded primary against better-funded candidates before she even got a chance to face Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Businesswoman Lena Epstein, 35, was co-chairwoman of Trump’s campaign in Michigan and is challenging Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. But as a first-time candidate, she is not a proven commodity. Kathy Neset, who runs an oil field consulting services company, was recently mentioned as a potential challenger to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. But Neset would start the race as a political neophyte.

At a time when politicians are incredibly unpopular, strategists tend to fall in love with candidates (including Hawley) without voting records that can be exploited by opponents. But over two-thirds of the 99 elected senators previously served in the U.S. House or a state legislature (or both), so a voting record is not an electoral death sentence.

And in a state that remembers the Todd Akin debacle more than any other, a candidate who has had more time in the public eye may not be such a terrible idea.

In 2012, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock was viewed as a safe bet even after he knocked off Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the GOP primary, right up until the point when he offered his theological views on abortion during a high-profile debate.

One seemingly obvious way to avoid the temptation of some Republican men to offer their views on abortion and choice is to nominate a woman.

While Hawley is being hailed as a Republican savior who can unite all factions of the GOP, his electoral record is limited to a primary victory (in which he received $1.75 million from one contributor and his family and received considerable support from a Virginia-based super PAC) and a general election victory in a state Trump won by nearly 20 points over Hillary Clinton.

There was room for an anti-establishment candidate in a primary against Wagner, who has been in and round party politics for nearly three decades. But a serious candidate in that mold hadn’t popped up yet and that’s not the natural place for Hawley to run, considering he has support from prominent, longtime politicians such as former Sen. Jack C. Danforth, who served two terms as Missouri’s attorney general and was elected to the U.S. Senate before Hawley was born.

Of course, Hawley could run and defeat McCaskill in 2018. He could even become president of the United States one day by defeating 2016 Democratic Senate nominee Jason Kander. But it looks like Republicans missed a rare opportunity to help elect someone other than a white guy to the Senate.