Patricia Mueller, a public school teacher in Austin, Minn., never envisioned running for political office. In 2018, when some women in the Republican Party asked if she’d consider a campaign for state Legislature, she was flattered but surprised.
“I was like, you have to have a better candidate than me,” she recalled thinking at the time.
With a class full of students and a master’s degree of her own to complete, Mueller turned them down. Undeterred, they asked again last year. This time, the pitch landed. In November, Mueller announced her bid to challenge DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe for a southern Minnesota seat that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.
Two years after a record number of Democratic women ran and won across the country, helping lift their party to victory and make gains for gender parity in politics, early signs are emerging that some Republicans are seeking to replicate that success with a fresh crop of female candidates.
Mueller is one of at least nine GOP women running for DFL-held state House seats so far this year. Former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach has racked up key endorsements and support as she seeks the nomination to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in a district the president won by a wide margin in 2016. Last week, Air Force veteran Erika Cashin entered the race against freshman DFL Rep. Angie Craig in a suburban swing seat.
Mueller, a 38-year-old former missionary, said the timing and the energy level on the GOP side felt right for a run. Another factor? Calls from top female leaders in her party, urging her to enter the race.
“These are women who are successful, who lead busy lives and who have many things that they are responsible for,” she said. “They encouraged me, saying, ‘You are never alone in this process.’ ”
State Rep. Anne Neu, who helps lead candidate recruitment for the Minnesota House GOP caucus, said she is “thrilled” with the number of women running so far.
“We’re just asking them to run, over and over again, until we can wear them down and they’re willing to do it,” said Neu, who is assistant deputy GOP leader. “We’re looking for top-tier candidates across the board, and often that means women.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the effort will result in wins, reversing a downward trend in representation on the GOP side. The number of Republican women in Congress is at its lowest point in decades.
In Minnesota, the number of Republican women serving in the Legislature plummeted from 21 to 13 following the 2018 election. Several of those losses were in suburban seats seen as key to helping the DFL capture a majority in the state House.
The push in Minnesota mirrors some emerging national trends. At least 179 nonincumbent Republican women are running for Congress so far this year, about three times the number who had filed at this point in the 2018 cycle, according to data tracked by the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, has launched a political committee to recruit and support female candidates. A similar effort, called Women Lead, has the backing of prominent GOP women active in state politics here.
Leslie Rosedahl, chairwoman of Women Lead MN, called the drop in Republican women serving at the state and federal level a “wake-up call” for the GOP. “Studies continue to show that support and funding are major reasons why women don’t run for office,” she said, adding, “When women run, they win at the same rate as men — but [they] just don’t run for office at same rate.”
With the filing deadline and election itself months away, it’s too early to tell whether the efforts will make a difference. Research suggests that party and ideology far outweigh gender in influencing support for candidates, including among female swing voters seen as a key voting demographic in November.
Influential groups and leaders active in Democratic circles have for years pushed more women to run for office, part of the party’s growing emphasis on diversity, gender issues and women’s empowerment.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Minnesota say their work reflects a growing recognition that their party must take a proactive approach if it wants to build a deeper, more diverse bench.
That has meant more direct outreach to potential candidates like Mueller.
“With men, you can ask them once or float the idea once and they’ll go for it,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who made an unsuccessful run for state Senate. “We need to be asked multiple times.”
The efforts also represent a shift for a party whose leaders and voters have previously demonstrated reluctance to focus on gender, experts say.
“The challenge for Republican women who are supportive of supporting other women is being tongue-tied about how they talk about it,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “Their party overall has said, ‘We don’t embrace identity politics.’ ”
Candidates and leaders in Minnesota say they remain opposed to the idea of supporting candidates solely because of their gender. But they say it’s important for women to be represented in all levels of government.
“I do think it matters that we have women in positions of influence, if for no other reason that we have a different perspective,” Neu said. “Men and women are different, and we need women’s voices at the table.”