But Loeffler hasn’t been the moderate her backers expected. As she spooled up her Senate campaign, she tacked hard to the right: She called Black Lives Matter “anti-Semitic” and opposed to the “nuclear family”; she released ads saying she was to the right of Attila the Hun; she recruited the support of congressional candidate and QAnon adherent Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said that Loeffler “believes a lot of the same things that I believe.” She beat her strongest Republican opponent, Rep. Doug Collins, in November’s special election and may hold her seat in a runoff next month.
Loeffler’s transformation from a centrist Republican to a race-baiting Q ally was an exigency, and not a particularly original one — like many, she believed she needed to outflank her GOP rivals. But this imperative is driving Republican women, who have struggled to win election, much more than men. It suggests a problem that women on the right face if they hope to right their party’s gender imbalance: They’ll have to work much harder than men to prove their conservative bona fides.
Before November, only 13 of the 197 Republicans in the House were women. Research has shown that Republican women are perceived as more moderate than their male counterparts, which makes it hard to get out of primaries. Voters see them as more liberal than men on abortion, and Republicans don’t view them as favorably when it comes to criminal justice issues. FiveThirtyEight determined in 2018 that Republican districts are more likely to elect men.
It stands to reason, then, that when women win Republican primaries, they often do so by running to the right of their male competitors, which can make it harder for them to win the general election. For instance, after Katie Arrington, whom Trump supported, defeated Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) in a 2018 primary, she lost the general election.
Party leadership didn’t seem to see this as a problem. As head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2018 cycle, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) drafted more than 100 women to run for office. But only one, Carol Miller of West Virginia, won election to Congress; many lost their primaries. After that, Stefanik vowed to help more women in primaries, drawing a rebuke from the NRCC’s chairman, Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), who said that would be a “mistake.” Assessing candidates “shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion,” he said in response to her plan.
Republican women had a considerably better track record in 2020. Of the 12 House Democrats who fell, nine were beaten by Republican women. In some cases, it wasn’t because they catered to the fringe but because they matched their districts. Maria Elvira Salazar, who is Cuban American, defeated Rep. Donna Shalala, who does not speak Spanish, in a heavily Latino district in South Florida. Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, won in New Mexico, a state with a large Native American population. Michelle Steel and Young Kim will become two of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress and will represent Orange County, Calif., an area with one of the largest Asian American populations in the country. “In this environment, it wasn’t as if they were just allowed to be more conservative,” says Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC, which supports Republican women. First you have to win the base, she points out, but then you must “translate that into a solid foundation for the general.”
But Conway said other Republican women, like Loeffler (a political neophyte appointed to her seat), don’t have natural constituencies to draw on, so they must establish their credibility in other ways. For instance, when Arizona’s Martha McSally was a congresswoman, she was considered a moderate who supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But to survive her Senate primary in 2018 against former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state senator Kelli Ward (who had run to the right of Sen. John McCain in 2016), she veered aggressively rightward. McSally lost her race by a few points, but then the governor appointed her to a vacant Senate seat, and she continued developing a record as a conservative champion, criticizing Trump’s impeachment as a “kamikaze mission” and saying that he was “under constant assault” despite “winning on so many issues.” She stiffened her stance on immigration, defending Trump’s use of $30 million meant for a construction project at Arizona’s Fort Huachuca to build sections of a border wall.
Even Stefanik — an establishment Republican who worked on domestic policy for President George W. Bush and oversaw debate prep for vice-presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan in 2012 — has moved to the right. In the past two years, she became one of Trump’s biggest defenders during his impeachment hearings, earning praise from the president and a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, criticizing the “illegal impeachment sham.” After the election, Stefanik said she supported the president’s legal challenges because “ballot security and integrity is very, very important.”
As women self-radicalize to prove themselves in GOP primaries, they’ll imperil their chances at winning office. McSally, for instance, lost her general-election race for the Senate this month. These outcomes will do little to deliver more Republican women to Washington.