Nine short years ago, Kat Cammack found herself homeless. This was due in large part to the Obama-era “Home Affordable Modification Program,” a now-defunct failed loan program that was designed to help desperate homeowners avoid foreclosure amid the 2008 recession and housing crisis but ended up draining families’ savings. It was an eye-opening experience for her. “When we found ourselves homeless, I realized the impact Washington, D.C., would have on your life without you really knowing,” the 32-year-old told me on the phone. Soon, she’ll be looking for a place to live in Washington as the youngest Republican woman in Congress, representing Florida’s 3rd District. Now, the freshman thinks her homeless-to-Congress story epitomizes the American dream.
Cammack has plenty of company. This year has been a historic one for Republican women, who doubled in number in the U.S. House after the election. As of this writing, 36 Republican women will serve in the next Congress, a record.
These women are more diverse than you might expect from a GOP that has cultivated a reputation as the party of white males. And they’re a collective example of fascinating firsts. Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is the first Republican Native American businesswoman elected to Congress from New Mexico, which is itself the first state to elect all women of color to the U.S. House. Rep.-elect Nancy Mace is a single mother and business owner from Charleston, South Carolina, and the first female graduate of the Citadel. Miami resident and soon-to-be Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar is a Cuban American woman who ran on a vehemently anti-socialist platform and won.
Some of these women booted longtime establishment-loving male politicians from office. Coloradan Lauren Boebert is fiercely pro-gun and beat five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the GOP primary. Michelle Fischbach was Minnesota’s lieutenant governor under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. She managed to unseat 15-term Democrat Collin Peterson to represent Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District.
Some beat noteworthy odds. Peterson benefited from the connections his lengthy career in politics garnered him. “We were the only race in the country that defeated a non-freshman Member. My opponent … had support from nearly every Washington, D.C., PAC, and special interest you can imagine. They gave him well over one million dollars in direct contributions and funded a super PAC to support him and attack me,” she told me via email. “Despite all of the attacks and spending against me, we still won by nearly 14 points.”
Boebert ran in Colorado’s 3rd District and became the first candidate in 50 years to beat an incumbent in a primary in Colorado. She started with only $10,000 in her campaign account but collected over 15,000 small donors, setting a Republican fundraising record. She made headlines when she told Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, “Hell no, you aren’t taking our guns,” and again when she defied Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s COVID shutdown orders by responsibly opening her restaurant so she could make payroll. “I’m proud to be the first mom and woman to represent Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. I’m also proud to win political office as a newcomer who will now have a voice among a sea of lawyers and career politicians,” she told the Washington Examiner.
Fischbach recognized that the wave of winning Republican women didn’t come out of nowhere: “This year’s successes are a testament to the women who have come before me and worked tirelessly to promote and support female candidates like myself.” She cited women such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, “who have been on the national stage showing there are bold Republican women ready to lead.”
“It is crucial that Congress has the unique perspective from women, mothers, and grandmothers — and not just from those on the Left,” she said.
Many of the female politicians I spoke to were eager to recognize and thank women such as Haley who had gone before them, but the impetus to run for many came much closer to home. Fischbach, for example, said she was inspired by her pro-life mother. On the phone, Mace, elected to represent South Carolina’s 1st District, credited her daughter’s encouragement two years ago. “I had just won my reelection as a state house lawmaker. The next day, my daughter and I saw Republicans had lost this seat, and my 9-year-old turned to me and said, ‘Hey Mommy, when are we going to take this seat back?'”
Diana Harshbarger owes her interest to the political climate and her family. She now represents Tennessee’s 1st District, replacing retiring Republican Rep. Phil Roe. “I saw the way our country was leaning towards socialism and thought about my son and grandchildren and wanted to make sure they have the same opportunities she did growing up,” she wrote in an email.
They have noticed across the aisle. “Democrats Have a Republican-Women Problem,” a recent Atlantic headline read. Comparisons to “the Squad,” Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, have already emerged. In a party that has lacked significant female involvement for decades, this might actually be a boon to the GOP’s stubborn male-centric image.
The Squad became known as such in part due to its diversity. Interestingly, its GOP female counterparts don’t seem as interested in trading on their gender and ethnicity.
Herrell has been applauded significantly and featured in several news stories already due to her background. Still, she shrugged it off when I asked her about it. “I am an American first and foremost, and race did not play a role one way or the other in my campaign.” However, she is looking forward to the days ahead. “I’m proud to be in this group of strong conservative women. I am looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish for America over the years to come,” she said.
Nicole Malliotakis defeated Max Rose, a one-term Democrat, winning a hard-fought race to represent Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York’s 11th Congressional District. The daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants, Malliotakis knows what it’s like to be a minority female in politics, but she, too, doubts the Republican Party will lean more heavily into identity politics. She does believe that her and her Republican colleagues’ diverse backgrounds help inform their shared conservative ideology.
“I haven’t met all the new members, [but] I have met some. You have an immigrant from the Ukraine. You have an immigrant from Cuba. You have myself and another member, Maria Salazar, who are daughters of Cuban refugees. You have a member from South Korea. There is a natural alliance forming that will counter the socialist ideas of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. And equally importantly, we are messengers who have real-life experience, whether it’s directly or through our parents, and knowledge of what socialism really is, and we need to get that message out to other people,” Malliotakis told the Washington Examiner.
Malliotakis believes the women of the Republican Party could end up forming their own “Freedom Squad” that will counter Ocasio-Cortez and the rest. “Democrats are so into identity politics and checking the boxes. We have qualified women who have different experiences, different backgrounds, who can contribute to the process and who can provide alternative viewpoints that are much-needed in Congress. Of course, politically, it helps the Republican Party to have diversity. We have elected minorities, women, that are going to be messengers to help us spread our message of freedom, of liberty, of a strong economy, of preserving the American dream, of, yes, stopping socialism,” she said.
Herrell’s and Malliotakis’s desire to focus only on politics after a presidential election in which voters seemed to eschew identity politics is likely a smart play. However, she and the others may have their work cut out for them when it comes to reframing their appeal with the rest of the media, which have played a significant role in highlighting the Squad’s enigmatic appeal and elevating a group of junior lawmakers to a much higher position of influence. Ocasio-Cortez just appeared on Vanity Fair’s October cover, two years after her election. The 2019 Netflix documentary, Knock Down the House, profiled four women who ran for political office, but only one, Ocasio-Cortez, won. Still, the uphill battle against her establishment opponent was clear; her appeal, conspicuous.
This intense, often obviously biased coverage might very well have influenced the success of this 2020 wave of Republican women. If the Squad could do it, why couldn’t they?
In her New York Times book review of The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress, Ellen Fitzpatrick observed, “In an era that has seen a woman come within striking distance of the presidency and an influx of female candidates and officeholders at every level of government, we continue to debate, as did those who supported and opposed women’s suffrage a century ago, women’s impact on American politics. Have women changed the culture of politics, its institutions and governance itself? Or have they behaved as voters and officeholders pretty much like men?”
That book was focused on the 2018 freshman class of women, who were mostly Democrats. And while many of these answers remain elusive two years later, it’s clear 2018’s Democratic wave changed politics. Republicans were inspired even by the women who may now become their primary antagonists. Nearly all the women I spoke to eschewed any hints of supporting quasi-socialist policies and expressed a desire to maintain conservative ideals that represented their districts, from working on local infrastructure solutions to reopening and rebuilding the economy nationwide, rather than pulling punches out of gender solidarity.
In fact, some see their election as a repudiation of the politics of the Squad. “The amount of Republican women that won their elections on Tuesday shows that we appeal to a broad base of the electorate. The American public rejected the radical Left’s agenda by electing us not only in open seats but by unseating numerous Democratic members of Congress as well,” Lisa McClain, who will represent Michigan’s 10th District in the House, said in an email.
While many of these ladies are as diverse as they are talented, they aren’t going to Washington just to “sit still, look pretty,” to quote Daya, the young female singer from Pennsylvania. They have work to do, and they intend to do it. “Do you see an AOC and Kat Cammack standoff in the future?” I asked Cammack, the formerly homeless alumna of the U.S. Naval War College-turned-congresswoman who was raised by a single mother who owned a commercial sandblasting business. At 31, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is known for being the youngest Democrat in office. “I’m up for it,” the 32-year-old Cammack quipped. “There’s a new squad in town.”
Nicole Russell (@russell_nm) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.