By Abbie Shull, LSU Manship School New Service
BATON ROUGE — Even though the Republicans now dominate Louisiana politics, only one Republican woman, Suzanne Terrell, has ever held statewide elected office, and her term as commissioner of elections ended nearly 15 years ago.
Terrell and three of the most prominent Republican women in the Legislature – Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Reps. Paula Davis and Julie Stokes all say their party could be doing more to recruit women to run for office.
“You don’t know if someone is good because they aren’t in office yet,” Terrell said. “I’m not saying to vote for a candidate just because they’re a woman, but the Republicans don’t know all the capable people out there because the party hasn’t tried.”
While female Democrats saw record-breaking success in 2018’s “Year of the Woman,” Republican women have had much more limited success in running for office in Louisiana and other states, and some say they have struggled to find a place in the state’s traditional “boy’s club” political structure.
Hewitt, who was an engineer and manager at Shell Oil for nearly 35 years and had chaired a parish recreation board, said that when she started her first campaign for the State Senate in 2015, she was openly discouraged from seeking office.
Her Republican opponent’s campaign manager “called me two days later and said that the powers that be met in Slidell and decided that it was my opponent’s seat; he deserved it and I was just a ‘PTA’ mom,” Hewitt said. “That fired me up. PTA moms make the world go around. By disparaging PTA moms, you basically insulted every female in my district. It was a great rallying call.”
Roger Villere, who chaired the Louisiana Republican Party from 2004 until early 2018, said he tried to encourage female candidates, but that they were more difficult to recruit than their male counterparts.
“In the end, a lot of them say: “Well, I’ll run, but you’ve got to finance it,” he said. “But it just doesn’t work that way.” He added that the state party does not have money to donate to individual campaigns, so the candidates must raise their own funds.
Villere also said that female candidates sometimes get tied up in rhetoric and take political attacks more personally than male candidates.
“The guys, for the most part, let a lot of the vitriol bounce off of them,” Villere said. “You’ll see them attack one another in the morning and then they’re out at a party kidding around with one another. Whereas the ladies tend to hold a grudge a little longer.”
Still, Villere said he feels the party is making progress.
“My whole thought process was: “Let’s elect Republicans,” he said. “And I would like to have a woman but if I can’t then we’ll go with the men. I’m not going to go with a weak Republican woman who doesn’t really want to run and doesn’t have the resources.”
Voting for female candidates is not a demonstrated priority for Republican voters nationwide. More Democrats find electing more women into public office is important than Republicans, according to 2018 election exit polls conducted by Edison Research. Of the 45 percent of people who said it is “very important” to elect more women to public office, only 17 percent identified as Republicans.
In the last 20 years, only four Republican women other than Terrell have run for statewide elected office. None of the others garnered more than 11 percent of the vote in their races. , Seven Democratic women have held statewide office in Louisiana.
In state governments nationwide, only 705 of the total 7,383 women in the state legislatures are Republicans, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Even traditionally Republican-leaning states like Mississippi and Alabama have more female Democrats than Republicans.
In some cases, advocacy or lobbying groups were the biggest supporters of Louisiana women with aspirations to elected office. Davis, who represents part of Baton Rouge, was a lobbyist herself before running for state office.
“I never thought I would actually run. Really, it was just being at the right place at the right time,” she said.
Davis said that when she was lobbying at the Legislature in 2015, another lobbyist and a legislator told her she needed to run for office. “I told them: “you’ve lost your mind,”” she said.
Terrell emphasized that it is rare for women running for office to have the same trajectory as the men, who are more likely to have long-term ambitions of running.
“I’ve been around a lot of men in politics and they tend to, you know, ‘I’m going to go to college, and I’m gonna do this and that and this, and eventually I’m gonna end up president,’” Terrell said. “With me—and I think with a lot of women—it’s much more of an organic process. It was the idea that I could go and fix something.”
Terrell worked in “citizen advocacy” at the state capital before running of an elected office of any kind. She considered a run for State Legislature but was discouraged by friends who suggested she would be more effective serving on a local level, such as the New Orleans City Council.
Stokes, who represents Kenner, was a certified public accountant with a large accounting firm before she ran for the House.
She has studied state budget issues and upset more conservative Republicans when she urged her colleagues to compromise on revenue-raising measure last year. She failed to make the runoff for Louisiana secretary of state last fall even though she raised more campaign funds than any of the nine candidates.
Hewitt believes it is important to have strong women in leadership positions and in statewide offices so all women can see that it is possible for them not just to run, but to win.
The Democratic Party is flush with organizations designed to recruit women candidates, and Hewitt began working in 2018 to bring a chapter of the Republican-centric Right Women Right Now group to Louisiana. The organization was formed in 2012 to recruit, train and support state-level female candidates.
In 2016, 163 out of 690 Right Women Right Now candidates won their races or were appointed to office. Three of its candidates took congressional seats from Democrats in Alaska and Rhode Island in last fall’s midterm elections.
Terrell said that even when the political tides shifted toward Republicans in 2010, women in the party were not being recruited to run.
“The state party was always more concerned with electing someone with an ‘arm,’” Terrell said, referring to their own financial support network. “They’ve never looked at the trenches to see who’s there to be cultivated.”