CHICAGO – Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 thanks to a record showing by Democratic female candidates. Two years later, a record number of GOP women won seats, bringing the number of women in the chamber to a historic high.
But for some female incumbents running for reelection this year, holding their seats comes with a new challenge: redrawn congressional districts that will be tougher to win.
It’s too early to know how many female representatives were hurt by the once-a-decade process known as redistricting — in which boundaries are redrawn based on census data to ensure similarly sized districts — because multiple states haven't finalized their maps. But in states with new district boundaries, the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University found more than a dozen women so far who are running in significantly tougher territory. That’s more than double the number who are in districts that will be significantly easier to win after redistricting, the analysis found as of this month.
The new maps mean some female representatives are seeking reelection against longer-serving incumbent men — or against each other, such as in Georgia's Tuesday primary, where two Democratic female incumbents are facing off. Ultimately, the new maps will be a factor in whether women maintain or grow their numbers in the next Congress to more accurately reflect the makeup of the country, a goal members of both parties have concentrated on. Currently, female representatives make up about 28% of the 435 House members, with Democratic women holding roughly three times the number of seats as GOP women.
Many of those women are already vulnerable because they were recently elected and don’t have the advantages of longtime incumbency, such as fundraising and name recognition, said Kelly Dittmar, director of research for the center. They also often won in swing districts, areas more likely to switch from one party to the other.
“2022 is an important year to understand how these recently elected women are going to fare," Dittmar said.
In Illinois, which lost a seat in redistricting because of its shrinking population, the state's two first-term female representatives — one Democrat, one Republican — were among the 18-member delegation's biggest losers in the state's remapping.
Democratic mapmakers drew new boundaries that put Democratic Rep. Marie Newman and Republican Rep. Mary Miller into districts already represented by male incumbents. Both women chose instead to run in neighboring districts, against other men. (House members aren’t required to live in the district they represent, though most do.)
Newman is a progressive who in 2020 unseated Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. Last fall, Illinois legislators largely dismantled the Chicago-area district she represented as they created a new predominantly Hispanic district to reflect population gains. A large section of Newman's district was drawn into a neighboring district represented by two-term Democratic Rep. Sean Casten.
Newman’s home, and the area immediately around it where she performed her best in 2020, were drawn into the heavily Hispanic district represented by Democratic Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. That, Newman said, “I took personal.”
She thinks it was payback. “A lot of corporations, a lot of establishment people, they seem to still be mad at me," she told the audience at a fundraiser this month.
In an interview, Newman said she believes Democratic legislators responsible for the new map felt she was expendable because she was the most recently elected incumbent. She said it is “critically important” to have more women in Congress, especially at a time when abortion rights are under threat. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
“You can’t have an unqualified person in there. But if there’s a qualified woman, I think you really have to look at that and say, ‘We need more of a women’s voice in Congress, period,’" said Newman, who recently released a campaign ad in which she discusses having an abortion at age 19. “I am very confident if there were another 50 to 100 women in Congress and in the Senate, we would not be in this situation ... (Roe) would have been codified and unoverturnable."
Of course, not all women support codifying, or putting into federal law, the right to abortion. Among the fiercest opponents in the House is Miller, who said she was inspired by then-President Donald Trump to run for her southern Illinois seat in 2020.
Miller was drawn into the same congressional district as fellow conservative Rep. Mike Bost, for whom Trump campaigned in 2018. Rather than run against him, Miller opted to run in a nearby district against five-term Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who supported a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump has endorsed Miller.
Another female Republican, first-term Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, also was the victim of a partisan remap as Democrats who control the Legislature redrew her district in the southern part of the state to be significantly more Democratic.
It is not clear yet whether women were negatively affected by redistricting at a greater rate than male incumbents, many of whom also face more difficult elections, Dittmar said.
In some cases, women face challenges from other incumbents. That's the case in Michigan, where Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens are both running for a new Democrat-leaning district drawn by an independent commission. The matchup leaves another newly drawn, more competitive district without an incumbent.
And in Georgia, at least one female incumbent will lose her bid for another term after Tuesday’s primary. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux both flipped longtime GOP-held districts in the Atlanta area in recent election cycles. But after Republicans who control the state Legislature redrew McBath’s district to favor Republicans, the two-term incumbent chose to take on the first-term Bourdeaux in a more Democrat-friendly district.
Some women are benefiting from the shakeup. In Oklahoma, GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice's district in the Oklahoma City area — previously held by Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn — was redrawn to be significantly more Republican.
For the candidates facing a tougher reelection, it is often familiar ground.
“I just have to prove myself again," Newman said.
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