More women are reshaping politics

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, bottom, second from right, with female members of the Democratic House caucus gathered outside the Capitol in January.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, bottom, second from right, with female members of the Democratic House caucus gathered outside the Capitol in January.

Republican state Sen. Vickie Sawyer and Democratic Reps. Sydney Batch and Ashton Wheeler Clemmons held a town hall on Facebook Live last week to encourage women to run for office. The legislators’ comments were revealing. The job requires raising funds, public speaking, private negotiating, intense juggling of time between work and home and regular, if sometimes inadvertent, sexism.

Clemmons, a 35-year-old freshman legislator, said some are surprised to find her among the graying, male ranks of legislators. “ ‘You’re a Rep?’ I heard that three times yesterday,” she said. Sawyer, 43, an insurance agent, wants to focus on regulations that hinder business, but she gets steered toward softer issues. “I feel like we get the squishy stuff,” she said. Batch, 40, a lawyer in her first year as a legislator, said, “I’m constantly asked, ‘Who’s watching your kids?’ ”

Despite such challenges, the number of women seeking office is soaring, but the rise is one-sided. The 2018 election — the so-called “year of the women’”— was actually “the year of the Democratic women.” As the Wall Street Journal noted in a March 14 story headlined “GOP seeks more women candidates,” the number of Republican women in the U.S. House after the midterm elections fell from 21 to 13. Democrats, by contrast, have a record 89 women representatives.

With Donald Trump in the White House, the GOP’s trouble with women is getting serious. A Pew Research Center poll last week found that men polled were evenly split over the president’s job performance but the divide among women is stark — 63 percent of those polled disapprove while only 32 percent approve.

The national gender gap is mirrored in North Carolina. In January, the General Assembly welcomed the largest class of women legislators in its history. Women now make up 26 percent of the 170-member legislature — 34 female representatives and 10 female senators. But the partisan breakdown among women members is uneven. In the House, it’s 23 Democrats and 11 Republicans; in the Senate six Democrats and four Republicans. Since Republicans are in the majority, the comparison is even more lopsided in percentage terms.

Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said recruiting more women candidates is a goal. “There’s no doubt that we have work to do,” he said.

The imbalance reflects the fact that there are more conservative men than women, but it’s compounded by a sense among many Republicans that fielding more women candidates is not a priority. Identity politics, after all, is for Democrats.

“The other side tends to look at people in groups more than we do. They say, ‘We need to nominate a certain race or gender.’ ” Woodhouse said. “We try to figure out who the best candidates are. (Gender) is not a first consideration.”

Except when it is, as in male voters.

“The gender gap cuts both ways. Remember men vote too,” Woodhouse said. “What is it about the Democratic Party that men can’t stand? That’s a bigger problem for them than the reverse is for us.”

Woodhouse may want to check his math. Women make up 51 percent of the electorate nationwide. If 62 percent of them don’t approve of your president, it’s a bigger problem for your party.

The three lawmakers who took to Facebook think both parties would benefit by electing more women, especially younger ones.

“Our bipartisan town hall reflects what research shows,” Clemmons said. “Women are more effective legislators who focus on collaborative outcomes for the people they represent.”

But for now, they mostly represent Democrats.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com