More Republican women than ever are planning to run for office
A record number of women hold seats in Congress, but they are mostly Democrats. Now, new contenders are hoping to shift the imbalance in D.C. and beyond.
There's nothing unusual about Patti Russo spending huge chunks of time on the phone. She's the executive director of a prestigious training program for women planning to run for elected office.
But this year, Russo has been fielding an influx of calls the likes of which she hasn't seen in her more than two decades helping to run the Women's Campaign School at Yale University.
The callers? A wave of Republican women.
"In the history of our school, we've never seen this before," Russo told NBC News.
The school has received triple the number of applications from Republicans as last year, according to Russo, fueled by a surge in applicants yearning to take a more active role in the direction of the country and their party.
"They're tired of being quiet, and they know they have a lot to give," Russo said.
The spike in applications is among a growing number of indicators that more GOP women than ever before are contemplating a run for office for the first time.
The 2018 midterm elections paved the way for a record-breaking number of women to hold seats in Congress. But the gains were limited to one side of the aisle: out of the 127 females on Capitol Hill, only 21 are Republicans.
A new crop of contenders is hoping to shift the imbalance in Washington and beyond.
They are a diverse bunch — prosecutors and homemakers, business leaders and federal workers. Some are gearing up for local elections. Others, like Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee of Illinois, are running for a seat in Congress straight away.
An investment manager who is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and concerned about climate change, Ramirez Mukherjee said she's stepping up in the hope of helping to change the perception of her party.
"There are so many people like me in the urban centers but we are all just in hiding and don't get a platform," said Ramirez Mukherjee, 46, who is Mexican-American and holds graduate degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"I want to get out there and show people that you can be a Republican and be considerate and kind and diverse," added Ramirez Mukherjee. "We need to have new role models in the party."
The future of the party
Anne Smith, who left a foreign affairs job with the federal government and now cares for her 20-month-old twins, is plotting a run for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly.
She spent two years in Afghanistan working to help stabilize the local government after coalition forces ousted the Taliban in the early 2000s.
But Smith, who describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate, now feels like it's the U.S. political system that's broken — and her party is a part of the problem.
"I'm really frustrated with the Republican party," said Smith, 37. "It's losing women voters, and it doesn't seem to be doing anything about it."
Smith said Trump's controversial remarks about women haven't made her question her party loyalty. Instead, they've actually strengthened her case for pursuing elected office now.
"It is disparaging and I can recognize that, but it's not going to dissuade me from running," she added. "In fact, it would just say there's more of a reason to show that there are women who will stand up and be in the Republican party."
The political action committee Republican Women for Progress raised $1 million in a single month last fall on the promise of boosting the campaigns of people like Smith.
The group is now working with roughly 50 women across the country who are pursuing elected positions at all levels of government — local, state and national.
"We can't keep up with all the folks reaching out to us," co-founder Jennifer Pierotti Lim told NBC News.
"Without a doubt, it's definitely more Republican women than I've ever seen be interested in running. They feel like this is the time to step up...Women are reaching out to us who feel displaced from the current party."
Other Republican groups have also seen a spike in women pursuing elected office. The National Republican Congressional Committee has a "record number of women running for the House," a spokesperson said.
VIEW PAC, one of the most prominent political action committees focused on electing Republican women, is working with at least twice as many serious female candidates this election cycle compared to last, officials say.
"This has been building for a long time," said Julie Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC. "Maybe now the dam has broken."
Erin Loos Cutaro, the CEO and Founder of She Should Run, an organization that encourages women to consider running for office, said Republican women have tended to shy away from running for elections.
"Traditionally, it has been more difficult to pull Republican women into the process," Cutaro said. "The women don't see themselves represented in the party, don't have the institutional support that is available to Democratic women."
But that appears to be changing, Cutaro said. Her organization has also seen an uptick in GOP women positioning themselves to pursue elected office.
"This is very different than anything that's come before," Cutaro said.
It's not just mid-career women or retirees who are contemplating a run for office.
Republican Women for Progress hosted a day-long training in Washington D.C. earlier this year that attracted millennials like Kayla Gowdy.
"I just turned 24, not even old enough to run for Congress," said Gowdy, an Ohio native who now lives in Washington D.C. "But I think that everything that we're fighting for right now is for the future of the party, and I want to help save the future of the Republican party."
Surprised and frustrated
Emily Pelphrey ran for county prosecutor in her Columbus suburb, but did not secure her party's nomination earlier this year. She said she was surprised by the lack of support from the county Republican party during the campaign. But in the months since, she told NBC News, the president's statements on race have made it impossible for her to support the Republican party. In July, she reached out to volunteer for the Biden campaign.
"The GOP lost one more person," Pelphrey, 43, told NBC News. "It really is the party of Trump now. And that's not a party I want to be associated with."
Like Pelphrey, many of the GOP hopefuls interviewed by NBC News said they were frustrated by the lack of support from the Republican Party, and some said they were actively discouraged from running by local party members or political consultants. These women said that they encountered concerns about female candidates being perceived as playing "identity politics."
"I heard that...when I was thinking about running," said Anne Smith, the former government worker. "What surprised me was I felt for the first time in my life, I was up against that proverbial white, old man wall that I had never experienced before."
She added: "It's disconcerting that the Republican party sees women as an identity and not as just equals within the party that can run neck to neck."
Concerns over the party not supporting women candidates broke out in public last year when Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., came up against resistance over a plan to encourage more women to compete in GOP primaries.
Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, did not directly address a question about the allegations that party officials have discouraged women from running, but she expressed optimism over the prospects of more stepping forward to carry the GOP mantle.
"The Republican Party consistently has a deep bench of rock star women candidates running for office across the country, and under RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel's leadership, encouraging more women to get involved in politics remains a top priority," Ellis said.
For Russo, the head of the Women's Campaign School, the surge in interest has convinced her that more Republican women are poised to enter politics no matter the level of support they receive.
"Democratic women know that they have the resources available to them. They are the energized base, for sure," Russo said. "But again, now we're seeing the energized base becoming Republican women."