Utah Republican women say they are not an ‘endangered species’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Republican candidate for Utah offices, Kaysville mayor Katie Whitt, candidate for Utah's 1st Congressional District shares a laugh with Aimee Winder Newton, candidate for governor. The Utah Federation of Republican Women pitched their 2020 theme — The Year of the Woman — during their annual Legislative Day at the Capitol on Monday. Members planned to meet with elected leaders and attend sessions in the House and Senate, Feb. 24, 2020.

The number of Republican women in the U.S. House declined in the past decade and many statehouses don’t fare much better. Standing in contrast is the rising number of Democratic women elected to office.

That led a historian to write that “Republican women are in crisis.”

It is a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with some Utah women.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Enid Mickelsen, the first female Republican from the Beehive State elected to the U.S. House.

She served one term starting in 1995. No women from Utah, Republican or Democratic, are serving in Congress now. In Utah, one of the most conservative states in the nation, the Legislature includes 16 Democratic women and 10 Republican women.

Those stats cloud reality, argues Kari Malkovich, a Woodland Hills city councilwoman and first vice president of the Utah Federation of Republican Women. She said a more accurate snapshot would include the GOP women involved at all levels of government.

Malkovich pointed to Republican women serving in city councils and campaigns and executive offices, such as Kirsten Rappleye, chief of staff to the lieutenant governor, and Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“Republican women are not an endangered species,” said Kendra Seeley, Utah Republican Party secretary.

About 30 women joined Seeley and the Utah Federation of Republican Women on Monday in the Capitol Rotunda for an event held in reaction to the December opinion piece in The New York Times that described the future of Republican women as “bleak.” That column, written by Nancy L. Cohen, blames the presidency of Donald Trump for blunting any momentum GOP women had. She warned that his reelection would make things even worse.

“If Mr. Trump wins, given his unpopularity with female voters, the future for Republican women in politics looks very bleak indeed,” Cohen wrote.

The Republican women who gathered in Utah on Monday say that’s not the case.

“We are refuting that there is a weakness in Republican women,” Malkovich said.

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Of the 127 women serving in Congress, just 22 are Republican, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. There are more than two times as many Democratic women as Republican women in state legislatures across the country.

In Utah, 195 women have served in the Legislature since 1897, including eight Republican women in the Senate and 75 Republican women in the House, according to a February report from the Utah Women and Leadership Project. This session, a record number of women — 26 — serve in the Legislature, including 10 Republicans. In all, there are 104 Utah lawmakers.

“If you’re just looking at the numbers,” Malliga Och, an Idaho State University assistant professor who’s researched women in conservative parties, said calling it a crisis is a “fair characterization.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But Och said she doesn’t think there’s an “ideological crisis” because “there are plenty of conservative women who would make brilliant and great legislators,” but “the problem is that they are not running."

“The main hurdle for Republican women is in the primary process,” according to Och. The Republican Party doesn’t have the same level of proactive recruiting and fundraising efforts directed toward women as the Democratic Party, she said.

Republican Rep. Candice Pierucci said she’d like to examine places such as Alaska and Arizona, which have a higher number of Republican women serving in the state Legislature than the national average, to see “what can we do better.” To get more Utah women in positions, Republicans have “to build up our bench like you would with any sport."

“Conservative women can and should run," Pierucci said.

If you don’t see women in these positions, though, it can be hard to picture yourself in them, Pierucci said. Only two women have been elected to Utah’s five statewide executive offices, and just four women have served in Congress, according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project. The last being GOP Rep. Mia Love, who was edged out by Democrat Ben McAdams in 2018.

But this year, Republican women — including GOP activists Mary Burkett and Kathleen Anderson, state Rep. Kim Coleman, Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, and Morgan County Councilwoman Tina Cannon — are running in congressional races.

“If you’re going to change what comes out of D.C., you’ve got to change who goes into D.C.," Witt said. “And the quickest way to change that is get more Republican women in Congress.”

“The more women that we can get involved in executive level and legislative level positions to help make those decisions, the better,” said Aimee Winder Newton, who is one of two Republican women running for Utah governor, along with businesswoman Jan Garbett.

Jennifer Hogge, Lisa Bagley and Lorraine Brown were a few of the Republican women at the Capitol who said they are seeking seats in the state Legislature. Hogge said she’s never run for office before but felt she could use her experience as a teacher to work on education issues.

To get more women on the ballot, Seeley, the secretary of Utah’s Republican Party, suggested people must encourage more women to step forward.

“Support good women who do run," she said, “not just because they’re females, but because you believe in them.”

Generally, Republicans “try to be careful to avoid identity politics,” said Pierucci, who claimed her House seat after the incumbent resigned. Salt Lake County Republican delegates selected her and Gov. Gary Herbert formally appointed her to the post. She’s serving in her first session.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left to right, Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, Lisa Bagley and Aimee Winder Newton discuss their goals Monday at the Capitol as Republican candidates for elected office in Utah. Witt is running for Congress, while Bagley is running for the state Legislature and Winder Newton runs for governor.

Pierucci wanted people to vote for her based on her credentials, not because she’s female, she said.

That’s a point that Mickelsen makes about her race in 1994.

“I didn’t set out to become the first woman Republican elected to Congress from the state of Utah,” she said. “I presented myself because I thought I was a good, qualified candidate.

“My attitude was always if I do the best job that I can and show people that I am qualified, that helps the next woman coming up behind me."

While there’s still more work to do, Mickelsen sees more women in office today than when she ran 25 years ago. And, in the future, “more will come," she said.

For Och, the Idaho State professor, part of why Republicans should elect more women is “simply fairness,” to better represent the population. But another reason is that to have gender equity in government, “we cannot just elect one specific kind of woman," she said.

“Women are not a homogenous bloc. They have different opinions," Och said. “And if we truly believe in this diversity that women bring, we need to elect a diverse body of women to the party, to both parties, and not just pro-life Democratic women, but also more conservative women.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.