Two decades ago, Republican women outnumbered their Democratic counterparts in the state legislature.
Today, there’s just one Republican woman in the state Senate and six in the House. That compares with 37 Democratic women in the two chambers.
The Colorado Republican Party is looking to reverse the trend. The party on Wednesday announced a new Women in Action program to get more women candidates — and voters — involved ahead of the 2020 election.
The party’s Vice Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown is leading the effort, with several other prominent GOP women listed as founding members. “It’s one of the top priorities at the state party,” Brown said. “One of our main priorities is recruiting and training women around the state, and just getting them involved in our ground efforts.”
The program is designed to trumpet President Donald Trump’s record and help to engage women voters through door-to-door canvassing efforts.
In Colorado at the start of the year, 38% of registered women voters were unaffiliated, 34% were Democrats and 26% were Republicans. Among all voters, 41% were unaffiliated, 30% were Democrats and 28% were Republicans.
Even though women are a smaller segment of the GOP, Brown noted that women lead the Republican Party in seven of Colorado’s 11 largest counties.
“We have women in our top leadership spots, and those are the kinds of women that are being trained and actively being connected and participating in their communities, and they can become elected officials at some point if they want,” Brown said.
One area of focus is the General Assembly. Out of 100 lawmakers in Colorado, 44 are women, ranking the state second in the nation for women lawmakers. Of the Republican lawmakers, men outnumber women 15 to 1 in the Senate and 17 to six in the House. (One House seat previously held by a woman is vacant.)
The fact that Democratic women outnumber their Republican counterparts fits a national trend, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which found 68% of women in state legislatures nationwide in 2019 were Democrats.
To get more women elected, the Repubilcan Party will need more women to run for office.
In 2018, only 25 women appeared on the GOP primary ballot for state or legislative office, compared with 83 men, a review shows. On the Democratic side, it was nearly even with 64 men and 63 women.
Over the last 10 election cycles, the number of women candidates running as Democrats consistently outpaced their GOP counterparts, according data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics. The real leaps began in 2004 when Democrats took control of both the state House and Senate.
The only current Republican woman holding a statewide position is Heidi Ganahl, a member of CU Board of Regents. Republican Sue Sharkey, of Fort Collins, holds the 4th Congressional District regent seat.
The lack of female Republican candidates is even a concern among Democratic women, like state Sen. Faith Winter, of Westminster, who’s been training women to run for office since 2005. Winter defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik in 2018.
“Our democracy is better when we have a variety of backgrounds and voices,” said Winter, who works as national program director for the nonpartisan group Vote Run Lead, which encourages women to run for office.
One obstacle for the GOP: Women tend to be Democrats
It isn’t just Colorado experiencing a dearth of Republican women in elected office.
“In 2018, we had a record number of new women elected to Congress. Only one of them was a Republican,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
Part of the problem is where women align on the partisan issues, Walsh said. “Women are more likely to be Democrats,” she said. “Women see government playing a bigger role in their lives and an important role in their lives. Things like family medical leave, social security, unemployment insurance, all kinds of aspects of that social safety net, because we know that women make less money than men do.”
But even when women run as Republicans, they find it tougher to win. The women on the Democratic side were more successful in Colorado than Republican women from 2000 to 2018. In 2018, for example, Democratic women won nearly 68% of their legislative races compared with 17% for GOP women.
“I think it goes through cycles,” Brown said. “I think some of the Democratic women candidates have beat Republican women candidates. So it’s not as if we weren’t running women. 2018 was a bad year for Republicans.”
And once elected, some women find it hard to rise through the political ranks.
Former state Rep. Polly Lawrence, of Douglas County, served as assistant Republican leader for two years starting in 2015, but she couldn’t get the votes to win the top GOP post so she didn’t run. State Rep. Patrick Neville, who is more conservative than Lawrence, won the minority leader position.
In the 2018 election, Lawrence was the only Republican woman running for statewide office, but finished last in a three-way GOP primary for state treasurer. Lawrence said she got pushback for being a woman running for statewide office. “Having worked in construction for 30 years, it surprised me.”
With the GOP, ideological differences are source of tension
The Republican Party’s rightward shift in recent years also makes it harder for women candidates who are more moderate in their beliefs.
“The Republican Party has moved further and further to the right,” said Walsh, the Rutgers researcher. “Many of the Republican women who were serving in the ‘70s and ‘80s in legislatures across the country tended to be more moderate than their male counterparts. And they found it more and more difficult to make it through primaries where the most conservative Republican voters are turning out.”
Lola Spradley, the first Republican state House speaker, who took the helm in 2003, agreed that some of the women with whom she served likely wouldn’t get elected today because of their more moderate views on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.
“The Republican Party has been a little tough on people who don’t agree with them on all the social issues,” said Spradley, who lived in Beulah while she served. “If I was in my old district, I could get elected today because my old district was a pretty rural conservative district and my values haven’t changed and their values haven’t changed. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true for other districts.”
Suzanne Staiert, a former deputy secretary of state now running for state Senate, said she’s getting support from Senate Republicans, all but one of whom are men. She’s running in Senate District 27, based in south Aurora and Centennial, for a seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jack Tate, and may face a male challenger in the June 30 primary.
Staiert said parental responsibilities can make it hard for women to run. She’s a single parent of three daughters, the youngest is now 15. “That’s a big factor, when you have young children and the demands of that schedule,” she said. “You have to make choices of what you want to do, what you want to spend your time doing or what you can spend your time doing.”
In addition, many of the Republican-leaning districts are far from the Capitol, she said. “A lot of those Republican seats are now rural seats and those women can’t necessarily move to Denver for a certain amount of time and leave their kids at home,” Staiert said.
Democratic infrastructure supports women candidates
When it comes to women running for office, Walsh said Democrats often put more value in the fact the candidate is a woman.
“The Republican Party really shuns the concept of identity politics,” Walsh said. “There is a philosophy within the Republican Party that the best candidate will rise to the top. That is not to say that they don’t think it’s a good thing to have women in office or a good thing to have more people of color, but there is not a belief that the politics and the policy will be better with that kind of diversity.
“That is intrinsically part of the Democratic Party, a belief system that women and people of color can represent their communities better than white men can.”
One more factor that hurts Republican women is the lack of resources, especially compared to Democratic side, where organizations train women to run for office and political action committees provide financial backing to candidates.
Colorado has PACs at the state level to support women, including Blueflower Fund and Blueflower Action, and Emerge Colorado to train candidates. There’s no state-level Republican counterpart.
Lawrence, who now works as a policy consultant, said Republicans need to put more energy toward recruiting women to step forward as candidates. “We do need to take a little bit more time and encourage women to run, because they do bring a valuable voice and they bring a different perspective that I think is very valuable.”
Brown is optimistic the new state GOP effort can help reach more women in 2020. “We have plenty of women coming through the pipelines who are going to continue to run,” she said.