For years, Democrats have provided training and resources to women looking to run for office through organizations like EMILY’s List. Republicans have not, and the current demographics of Congress show the results. That’s one of the reasons sisters Kodiak and Ariel Hill-Davis helped to found Republican Women for Progress, which provides policy-minded Republican women with the tools they need to win.

They discuss many of the unique roadblocks Republican women face on the campaign trail, but also touch on the many accomplishments moderate women have made in Congress. While the media likes to highlight individuals with the most outrageous rhetoric (men and women alike), many women are doing the hard, unglamorous work of governing behind the scenes.


Ariel Hill-Davis: I think there is more benefit to people like us being in the Republican Party than leaving it at this point. That does not make it easy. And it also does not mean that the road to re-creating space for people like us in the Republican Party is going to be a short-term prospect either.

Geoff Kabaservice: I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: And I’m Kodiak Hill-Davis with the Niskanen Center.

Geoff Kabaservice: Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the mighty muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography and current events. And today, Kodiak and I are pleased to be joined by Ariel Hill-Davis, the co-founder and policy director of Republican Women for Progress. And if it seems to you that Ariel’s last name bears a suspiciously close resemblance to Kodiak’s, that is because they are in fact sisters. And in addition to both being movers and shakers at Republican Women for Progress — where, full disclosure, I am a proud member of the advisory council — the Hill-Davis sisters are both active in government affairs. Kodiak is the vice president of government affairs at the Niskanen Center. And Ariel is the vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the Industrial Minerals Association of North America. And if I recall correctly, Ariel, you’ve worked for over a decade in public policy with a focus on heavy industry like manufacturing and mining.

Ariel Hill-Davis: That is absolutely correct. And I would say that this will be interesting because Kodiak and I do sound very similar, to the point that our mother actually gets confused when we call. So we like to play tricks on her. So it’ll be interesting to have us both on a podcast together.

Geoff Kabaservice: We will have our sound engineer lower the decibel have on one or the other of the two of you, so you sound like you’re coming from the bottom of a well or something like that.

Ariel Hill-Davis: That sounds perfect to me.

Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. How have you been faring during this pandemic, Ariel?

Ariel Hill-Davis: I’ve been faring all right. I think that, unlike a lot of people around the country, I am fortunate enough to have most of my family based in D.C. So I have not been nearly as isolated as a lot of other people have. And I thank my family for keeping my sanity. Although, to be a little funny here, I did buy our mother a 5,000-piece puzzle as a joke. And I have now been roped into trying to complete said 5,000-piece puzzle, and that is having an undue effect on my sanity right now.

Geoff Kabaservice: Is there even a table in your house big enough to hold such a puzzle?

Ariel Hill-Davis: A dining room table, but we did have to add the leaves. So it’s been extended to its full… It seats twelve, I think, so it’s quite big.

Geoff Kabaservice: And there’s a Hill-Davis brother out there somewhere too, right?

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah. He’s located in Nashville. We lost him a couple years ago to the South, so that’s our outpost in a much artsier city than we currently live in.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes indeed. We’re happy to to have you with us, Ariel. And given that both of the Hill-Davis sisters were instrumental in creating Republican Women for Progress, I’d like to turn the interviewing spotlight for a moment on my cohost, Kodiak. Kodiak, you and I talked to Linda Chavez a few weeks ago and asked her all about her background and political career. So let me now ask you some of the same questions. Where did you grow up and what was your path to politics?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Sure. Well, it’s remarkably similar to my sister’s, which is kind of convenient for our purposes today. But Ariel and I both grew up in a moderate Republican family where it was very common to discuss public policy and political happenings around the dinner table. This will date me a little bit, but I remember my first election in kindergarten where I got to choose between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis on my little worksheet and circled George H. W. Bush. So I think it had kind of always been a part of our growing up in our kind of family life. And then Ariel and I were lucky enough to go to the Madeira School, which is an all-girls’ high school in McLean, Virginia, where in your junior year, you have internships on Capitol Hill. So when I was sixteen years old, I had my first internship on Capitol Hill and was completely sold.

I moved back to Washington shortly after graduation from Smith College and hit the ground running, working for a moderate Republican from Connecticut, Nancy Johnson. And kind of the rest is history until 2015, and that infamous escalator ride, where I started to really question the trajectory of the Republican Party as I knew it and really started to wonder if the kind of classic, moderate conservative still existed — the more fiscally responsible, big proponent of individual liberties, but socially quite liberal — if that brand of the Republican Party was still viable, if it was still going to exist. And that kind of brought us to where we are today.

Geoff Kabaservice: And Kodiak, remind me where you went to college?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I went to Smith. I found that the all-female environment was particularly conducive to my studies.

Geoff Kabaservice: And Smith College has lately provided a lot of fodder for Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators. Smith was even then a progressive place, right?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Very progressive. In fact, I actually think it was a formative experience for me in a variety of ways to be an openly Republican at a very, very liberal environment, a very liberal school. Of course, I was a poli-sci major, so I had these fights with not only my classmates but also with my professors pretty regularly. And I think it was really formative for me to find myself in the minority and really having to articulate my positions thoughtfully and firmly in the face of significant social pressure to change my line of thinking. I think I came out of Smith more conservative than when I went in, and I think it was overall a very positive experience. When I was there, we were already debating having non-gender-binary bathroom facilities. And that was, I don’t want to date me, but like 15, 20 years ago — so pretty progressive for a blonde Republican from Washington D.C.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yes indeed. So Ariel, now’s your chance to tell about all the details that Kodiak got wrong about your growing up! No, kidding…

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah,. You know I do like to let her speak for me, which as my older sister she’s more than happy to do on most occasions! I’m kidding, I’m kidding. So yeah, no, I mean, we grew up talking politics, grew up talking shop, I think around the table. It was just a really comfortable space for both of us, I think. And where our paths diverged… We had the same experience — we’re only two years apart — so went to the same boarding school outside of DC, had the same experience being on Capitol Hill, different offices. I actually was telling somebody that my internship experience during my high school year, in my junior year, was during the anthrax scare. So opening a lot of mail as an intern was not exactly something that seemed great to me at the time…

Geoff Kabaservice: The interns are expendable in DC.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah. Yeah, apparently. So I had that experience and then I ended up going abroad for my collegiate experience. So I was at the University of St. Andrews and really thought that I was going to be an expat, to be honest. And then…

Geoff Kabaservice: I detect no Scottish accent though.

Ariel Hill-Davis: No. Although if I spend time over with my friends in the UK, the cadence of my language changes. It’s not so much that I get the accent but there’s a lilt that comes into play pretty significantly. So yeah, I graduated, I came back to DC kind of looking basically for a short stop here in DC, and ended up on Capitol Hill working for another moderate Republican, Mike Castle from Delaware. I just adored him, thought the world of him, and was part of his staff when he got primaried by the infamous Christine O’Donnell, started the Tea Party with “I am not a witch.”

It was incredibly formative for me, I think, to watch someone who just was a tremendous asset to the Republican Party in terms of his policies, how well he represented the people of Delaware, to see the legs cut out from under him, as he was looking to leave the House into the Senate, by somebody who was just not qualified at all to be running against him. It feels very much at this point, we got a bellwether. So after that, I shifted into the private sector, found my way into the trade association world, and I’ve been there ever since. And it’s provided me a really interesting experience of, as Kodiak said, feeling very more kind of socially liberal. But I have a deep passion for the kind of people who do and make our modern world, who oftentimes fall into more conservative buckets.

Representing the mining industry for the last seven years has been educational in so many ways, but is this weird balancing point of feeling very much drawn to some of the deregulation and kind of Republican platform in that sense while also being very — I mean, to not put too fine a point on it — kind of repulsed by the social aspects of the Republican Party for quite some time. And so that kind of tension in myself is something that I still kind of struggle with I would say daily to be honest.

Geoff Kabaservice: And Kodiak, how would you describe yourself as a moderate Republican? What are the factors that make you define yourself in that way?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I’m not a Democrat.

Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a start.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: It sounds glib, but I think one of the ways that I like to conceptualize the labels Republican and Democrat is that we see the same problems, we just come at the solutions from different perspectives. And I think when I conceptualize what a Republican is for me, it is… Our first impulse is not to build a government solution, our first impulse is not to spend more money on the problem. Our first impulse is a little bit more scaled back, a little bit more local, a little bit more, I think traditionally, individually reliant, more focus on individual accountability and not again, kind of thinking that there’s another government program that we can start that will be the solution.

But I think in some ways, the way that I conceptualize myself as a Republican doesn’t really line up with where the Republican Party is right now. I think it’s made it a little challenging. Because in some ways, culturally, I still very much identify with the party in the sense that, “Well, I’m a Republican and these are my people and this is my team. And we’re going to go forth with our solutions and promote these ideas.” But then I look at the ideas that they want to promote, and they don’t really line up with any of the values that I find myself being drawn to as a Republican.

So I think in this time of real identity crisis that the Republican Party is having, a lot of my fellow Republicans have left the party. And I understand why. I understand that they no longer recognize the party and they no longer recognize their values being reflected in the actions of the party. And I think, not trying to speak for my younger sister, but I think part of the reason that we stay is that on the one hand, it feels a little bit like this is our mess to clean up. So we need to clean it up.

But on the other hand, it feels very important that we not abandon the party structure when we are in a system of government that has a two-party system. If the moderates and the kind of thoughtful, sensible leaders no longer find a home in the Republican Party, you’ve really just ceded the field to the more outlandish and extremist elements of the party, the elements of the party that aren’t concerned with governing. I don’t think that they actually support democracy at all, which is deeply concerning. And I think for the good of the democracy, for the good of the Republic, I think staying and challenging the current trajectory of the Republican Party is really important work. It is not fun, but it’s really important.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that the other piece of this feels like… I am so happy that government is starting to be boring again, but I really think that more than anything, I want people who are willing to come to the table on both sides who are willing to discuss hard issues. There are so many complex issues facing our country. I happen to think that a more fiscally conservative view, kind of free market individualistic approach, has a place at that table. And I don’t see as much talk in that space on the Democratic side. Now, I don’t think that I’m seeing a lot of it on the Republican side either right now, but this is kind of my chosen space.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Ariel makes a good point about choosing your battles. And one thing that we have to think about very strategically is not opening up multi-front wars because they tend to go very poorly.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah. Historically, that doesn’t work out well.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: No.

Geoff Kabaservice: I know that from playing Risk.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I thought you were going to say Napoleon!

Geoff Kabaservice: Ariel, you work in what Trump likes to call “the swamp,” and Kodiak, you have too. What is it that people outside the Beltway don’t understand about the work of people who work on the Hill — lobbyists, people in the association world? And what is it that you wish they did understand?

Ariel Hill-Davis: Oh my gosh, Geoff, this is one of my all-time favorite topics of conversation. I have been saying for years, I don’t understand how the rest of the country has such an ugly and negative view of an entire city and ecosystem and group of professionals. I have really struggled for a long time with the fact that when you travel anywhere in this country, if you say you’re from DC, the immediate assumption is — and it’s verbalized to you — you’re corrupt. You’re on the take, you’re dirty, all of this. I can’t think of another city in this country that entirely is maligned in one way. People say, like, “Uh, New York City, big city…” But really because we’re a company town here, so to speak, everybody just assumes that if you think the government is corrupt, then if you live in DC and you work in DC, that you’re corrupt.

I have a really big problem with that because I think that it demonstrates a fundamental lack of civic understanding for how our government works. So I, frankly, think that our whole country needs to be reeducated just in terms of what civics is. Basic 101: these are the three branches of government. This is what they do. This is how elections work. Because I just think that without that understanding, you build in so many misconceptions of not just what lobbyists or advocates do, right? You also misunderstand your own role and your own power in that. And I actually think that one of the most interesting things to come out of the 2016 cycle and then the 2020 cycle is just how important individual votes are. Like the margins on the last two elections for the Electoral College, right? We’re not talking the popular vote, but for the Electoral College votes, your vote counts.

And I’m really hoping that people start to get that understanding again, that it’s important to vote. And my biggest thing that I always tell people is vote in the primaries because that’s where your real power is. So that’s this other misunderstanding. But I think people misunderstand why people come to DC. Most people come here because they want to make a difference, because there’s something they’re passionate about. And we all come here and we all understand that we have to work together. So you find your common ground in DC in a much different way than I think you do in other parts of this country. It’s a much more collaborative space when it’s working. Now, I would say that the last four years have really undercut, I think, the spirit of collaboration and congeniality in this city, which I think was a negative. But yeah, I just think that people are really prone to think negatively of “the swamp” without understanding it. And I really wish the 24-hour news cycle would ease up on kind of painting us all in this really, really I think misguided way that actually just hurts the electorate.

Geoff Kabaservice: Ariel, let me go back to an episode that you had mentioned earlier, which is that you were working with Mike Castle when he got primaried out of what would have been a pretty easy win for Republicans in the Senate election of 2010.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geoff Kabaservice: And what was it that allowed the Tea Party movement and Christine O’Donnell to defeat the guy who had been governor, representative, had been in politics for a long time, seemingly knew and was known by and even beloved by so much of the state of Delaware where he had been for so long a respected public servant? How did that happen?

Ariel Hill-Davis: I think a couple of things. I don’t think we really understood how polarizing primaries were going to get. I think that the Tea Party, to me, really feels like the jump-off for the really, really fringe portion of the parties turning out for the primaries. And I think what is really — we said it at the time and I think we’ve clearly seen this play out in so many different districts and so many different states since 2010. But Mike Castle losing his primary to Christine O’Donnell turned over that Senate seat to a Democrat, and it’s not coming back to a Republican any time soon. Because she couldn’t win in the general. She was too — I hate to talk about her as too extreme, knowing where we are now, but at the time she was too extreme. She was unqualified.

And so I think a lot of it was voters taking for granted that he was going to win the primary, so maybe not turning out. I also think that our campaign staff assumed that she was a joke. I mean, she was being made fun of on a national stage pretty regularly. When you’re running campaign ads that are saying, “I’m not a witch,” how seriously can you take that? And so I think it really was taking our eye off the ball a little bit and also misunderstanding how things were shifting in primaries. And then obviously because he was really beloved on the Democratic side as well —they couldn’t vote for him in the primary. So he was missing a whole kind of huge chunk of the population that usually would support him that then turned around and supported, goodness, it was Coons. Yeah. Gosh. It’s been so long I can’t even believe that Coons has been in the Senate for that long.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: And Coons is a great senator.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Oh yeah, absolutely. What I think is interesting about that episode is that it feels really reflective of where we are now, but in this way that we should have been able to model better to avoid certain outcomes today.

Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think that O’Donnell and her supporters actually thought that she could win in a general election or was it simply that they wanted the emotional satisfaction of giving an upraised middle finger to the system?

Ariel Hill-Davis: I think the latter. I’m not sure that they actually thought she could win. I mean, Mike Castle was really the old Republican standby. Most of the rest of Delaware was represented by Democrats at that point —still is. So I think it was more about kind of giving it to the establishment more so than putting up somebody who’d be viable in the general.

Geoff Kabaservice: So, Kodiak, let’s skip ahead to 2015. Donald Trump comes down the golden escalator and announces that he will be a candidate for the Republican nomination for the president. Where were you at the time and what were you thinking?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Sure. I was studying for the Virginia bar exam and I still remember watching that news clip and just being really concerned by it right away. Because I think, and I think this is actually something that Ariel and I had in common and that our co-founders of Republican Women for Progress also had in common, way back when, was that we saw him as a threat immediately. That he was going to be a disruptive force, it was going to be a crowded primary, and he was going to, because of his — I’ll give him credit here, Donald Trump has a very particular media savvy that a lot of establishment and career politicians did not have. So not only did he have pretty profound name recognition, but he also understood how to control and manipulate social media, and media kind of writ large, in a way that other politicians really didn’t have a knack for.

So we knew that he was going to be disruptive right away. And a lot of the rhetoric that he’d promoted during the Obama administration was, in my opinion, really racist and xenophobic, and was not taking the Republican Party in a direction that I thought was appropriate. And so in the spring of 2016, as he continued to kind of consolidate momentum and very effectively tarred his opponents with very pithy nicknames, a few of us got together and kind of found each other in the woods — the kind of lone Republican voices saying, “You know, I’m really uncomfortable with this. This doesn’t seem like we’re going in the right direction.” And Jennifer Lim and Meghan Milloy founded Republican Women for Hillary. We found them, and in doing so, found really a group of women who were very like-minded in their concern about what Donald Trump meant for the future of the Republican Party.

Now, at that point, I don’t think any of us were convinced he was going to win the 2016 election. But what he was doing as far as re-platforming the Republican Party was deeply concerning to us. And I think we all took him and his candidacy as a very credible threat. And truly I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be a slam dunk that Hillary would win. We just didn’t think that he would win. We thought it was going to be pretty tight, but that she would pull it out. She would prevail. And of course, on the heels of that election, we had to regroup and really think about what we wanted to do with this momentum we’d built around Republican Women for Hillary.

And we decided that the only way we could save the Republican Party was to elect more sensible, moderate Republican women, which no one seemed to be particularly interested in doing. So we reformed as Republican Women for Progress in the spring of 2017 and started doing the work of sourcing moderate Republican candidates, helping not only find and connect them, but help getting them media coverage, help getting them funders, help getting them training that they needed to be more sophisticated candidates. And then also helping them to push back when they were getting any sort of friction from their local GOP chapters or their state chapters, and really kind of forcing our way to the table, which I think was a space that hadn’t previously really been fully occupied. And so we really focused on: If we think this is the problem and we think the solution is more moderate Republican women in office to help prevent some of these outcomes, then we’ve got to do the legwork to make that happen. We’re going to build that pipeline ourselves, because it doesn’t currently exist.

Geoff Kabaservice: Although, to be sure, not all of the women who were part of and are a part of Republican Women for Progress were moderate Republicans. Some are considerably more conservative on some issues than others. Is that fair to say?

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yes, I think… So part of our… We clearly, I think, are well more in the moderate kind of centrist space personally, but I think that one of the things that we think is incredibly toxic in the GOP — and I think you’re seeing it mirrored in the Democratic Party, or you’re starting to — is this idea of party purity tests. And I don’t have to agree with you on every topic, every public policy topic. If you are a Republican and you see yourself as a Republican, there should be space for you, in my opinion, if you want to do the work of public policy in the party. So we do have our policy principles and we use those to evaluate different candidates that we want to actively support, and those are way more kind of in the centrist space. But within those founding principles is this idea of a restoration of the big-tent party.

And I think that also when we’re talking about some of the issues that are more polarizing… And I usually take any opportunity I can to say I am very Republican, and I am also very, very pro-choice. And that does people’s heads in. But I don’t have a problem holding those two things for myself and the values that those two things come from. I understand, though, that the issue of reproductive healthcare is incredibly polarizing and it’s very hard for Republican candidates to make it through a primary being pro-choice. So I’m not going to put that in as a test for what candidates we want to work with, nor would I, because I think that it’s important for other people to hold their values. And really what you’re voting for, for a person, is you’re voting on their judgment and that you can trust their value system is consistent — less so, in my opinion, than voting because they’re going to support your values 100% of the time.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I think that’s right, and I think one of the things that’s so important about this time is that we really have gotten away from being a big-tent party. We are increasingly skewed, I think, in the kind of what our base looks like and the kind of value propositions we’re providing. And I think we saw some gains in 2020, I think, because the NRCC and the NRSC started to cast a broader net and to kind of back off a little bit of some of those more stringent kinds of configurations. That’s how you get a candidate like Maria Elvira Salazar in Florida 27, who just got in a shouting match with Stephen Miller over immigration policy, because she’s promoting immigration policy that is thoughtful and it is a way forward. It is not regressive and it is very, very different than the kind of policy outlined by the Trump administration and by Stephen Miller while he was in that administration. 

So I think there is this tension, but in 2020, we picked up those seats because we were able to kind of broaden our horizons and move back towards that big tent. Unfortunately, some of the people now included in that big tent are deeply problematic and not at all reflective, I think, of the Republican Party as I would like to see it.

Geoff Kabaservice: If you go far enough back, like five decades or more, the gender gap as it existed was in favor of the Republican Party. At a time when the party was perceived as the party of stability and responsibility, women voted disproportionately Republican. But the gender gap in favor of the Democrats has been growing ever since and really widened significantly under Donald Trump. And Trump certainly seems to have accelerated the center of gravity of the party as being a sort of aggressively masculine party, and Trump himself seems to be particularly provoked by independent, forthright women, be it Megyn Kelly, or a whole bunch of others I’m sure we could name. And what has that done for the situation of women in the Republican Party in your view?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I have several thoughts about this. First, we didn’t develop a pipeline and an infrastructure in the same way that the Democratic Party did with the formation of EMILY’s List, where Democratic women realized that if they were going to achieve more parity, that they needed to build that infrastructure themselves. A lot of our thought process at Republican Women for Progress takes that principle and applies it to our own situation. They just got there 40 years before we did. 

I think in terms of Donald Trump and kind of alienating women, especially more moderate women, that’s very true. And I think one of the hardest parts about his presidency was the sense that if you were a Republican woman, you needed to answer for his behavior. And that’s particularly challenging. It puts a lot of pressure — not only on kind of general Republicans like we are, but Republicans who are in office — to somehow explain the tension between his behavior towards women and his mantle as the leader of the party as president, and your own Republican kind of title as an elected official. So I think it created this deep tension where instead of being asked to explain his own bad behavior, Republican women were being asked to explain it. And that puts us in this particularly challenging position of not actually holding power and authority, but being forced to answer for the bad behavior or the misdeeds of those who actually control most of the power in the party, which — it’s not women.

Geoff Kabaservice: If you go back to 1980, let’s say, there’s only about 3% women in the Congress, 97% men, but they’re more or less evenly distributed between the Republican and Democratic parties. But then what happens is that there’s slow growth in the number of women in Congress on the Republican side, but a fairly explosive growth on the Democratic side. So in the last Congress, if I’ve got my stats right, you had just 13 out of 200 House Republicans who were women, which is what, like 6.5%?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ariel Hill-Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geoff Kabaservice: But you had 89 of the 235 house Democrats who were women, which is closer to 40%. So really the Republicans were just left in the dust by Democrats when it came to recruiting women to run for Congress and get elected. And what were some of the factors for that lag as you saw it?

Ariel Hill-Davis: So I have kind of two different things that I want to tease out here as it relates specifically to 2018, but also in the trends that we’ve been seeing for quite some time in terms of Republicans just hemorrhaging support amongst women at different levels. So something that you’ll hear most Republicans say is, “We don’t play identity politics.” I have a problem with this for several reasons. The first is when you look around and 90-plus percent of your elected leaders are one demographic, that is your de facto identity. You’re just not calling it that, but that’s what your identity is. I think when you look at how that interacts with recruiting and supporting female candidates, or even really candidates who fall into any sort of minority group in the US, you cut the legs out from under campaigns from being able to lean into what makes them interesting and unique as candidates.

If you say, “We don’t play identity politics so we don’t ever want to hear about your identity. We don’t to hear about your identity as a black man. We don’t want to hear about your identity as a woman. We don’t want to hear about your identity as an immigrant” — although the immigrant angle is changing as they kind of, in 2020, sought to rebrand a little bit and make inroads with the Hispanic community and the Latino community. But I think that that really has been challenging for the Republican Party to overcome, because you just handicap good candidates from the jump. And it also has the other downside of isolating other members who could be part of your party from saying, “You don’t value me and my experience as a unique experience, so why on earth would I support your candidates who don’t look like me, who don’t reflect my experience?”

I think that that’s been a real negative and something that we’ve seen play a role in the homogenization of the Republican Party. As it relates to 2018, and the impacts of 2016 to 2018 to 2020, I think it’s undeniable that Donald Trump’s election shocked a lot of women around the country on both the Republican and the Democratic side out of complacency and out of this idea that we were making better gains. I, for one, had assumed that we were much further along the road towards gender parity and gender equality than I think we actually are. And 2016 was kind of this wake-up call. I think what you then saw was a lot of women flooding into the Democratic side to run, because they wanted to unseat who they saw as bad actors. They wanted to add their voice to our government, which I think is wonderful. 

And then on the Republican side, I think watching Democratic women gain so much in 2018 and watching, I think, a real failure on the Republican side in the first two years to hold Trump accountable for the things that he said, and his demeanor, and how he was treating people — I think Republican women following the blue wave of 2018 said, “That’s great that you guys are in office, but you don’t actually reflect my values as a more conservative woman. And if you can do it, then I certainly should get off the sideline and get into the game.” So I think it’s kind of a yin-yang in terms of Democrats seeing such significant gains and what that did on our side in terms of being an inspiration for Republican women to get involved.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Which overall is a very positive thing, I think.

Ariel Hill-Davis: I would agree.

Geoff Kabaservice: Conservatives also are reluctant to admit to structural factors of discrimination when it comes to the way society operates. And yet even on the Democratic side, women are not at parity in terms of their representation in Congress. So what are the factors that confront women candidates generally that makes them less likely to run or to win a primary or to get elected on both the Democrat and the Republican sides?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Sure. That’s a great question. There’s an anecdote that I’m going to share because I think it’s really illuminating for how women think. If you ask a man to run for office, he asks, “Can I win?” And if you ask a woman to run for office, she says, “How is this going to impact my family?” And I think therein lies the rub, that women, on both sides of the aisle, feel a very strong pull to be good mothers, good spouses, good sisters, good community members. And they feel the weight of all of those connections and all of those expectations. And would I be letting those people who I value down if I wasn’t successful in my campaign, if I wasn’t home in time for dinner, if I couldn’t be a caretaker for my elderly parents?

And when you’re thinking about a decision to run and you’re thinking about it on that kind of scale with that many variables, it gets a lot harder to convince yourself that it’s a good idea. Whereas if you’re only thinking about, “I’ll run for this office if I can win. And you think I can win? Then great, I’m running for this office” — that’s a much cleaner line of decision-making. So I think that’s a big part of it, the initial approach. And then there’s a sense that women aren’t good fundraisers, they’re not good campaigners, or they just don’t commit enough. And that’s not the case. Women fundraise at the same pace as male candidates and they’re excellent and committed campaigners.

But the challenges that they face on the campaign trail are often very different. And they’re very different for Democratic women, they’re very different for Republican women. They’re also different regionally. What it takes to run as a Republican woman in Alabama is fundamentally different than a Republican woman in Southern California. They’re just very different expectations about what you’re going to look like, what you’re going to sound like, what your priorities are, what your community engagement had been prior to your run.

And I think the same is true for Democratic women. It’s just different. There’s some different expectations.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah. I also think that we would be foolish not to acknowledge that the societal expectations for things like how women present just requires a lot more output. You have to look a certain way. I’m not talking in terms of exactly your physical build or anything, but you have to be pulled together. Your hair and makeup has to be done. You have to be in heels. All of these things are components that go into campaigning.

And Kodiak and I were just talking about the importance of having more female campaign staff at high levels for reasons like… If you set up a candidate breakfast at 7:00 AM for a woman, she has to get up at 5:00. That’s how that works because she has to be pulled together in such a way that at 7:00, she is camera-ready. What shoes does she have? What events are you putting her in? And how long is she going to have to be in heels for and can she walk for long times in those heels? All of these are just these micro thoughts and calculations that you have to do as a woman that just don’t have to happen in the same way for a man. There are different stresses I’m sure on that side, but that is certainly a component of campaigning and being a woman on the campaign trail.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: There’s a great story from the 2012 presidential primary cycle where… Michele Bachmann, who was the former representative from Minnesota’s sixth congressional district, had kind of developed a reputation for being like a Sarah Palin-lite. And they’re in South Carolina and they’re ramping up. And in between campaign stops at these rallies, she’s having to shower and re-have her hair and makeup professionally done because it is so humid that she is just sweating out of it. And so during those kind of intervals between these events, her male colleagues who are her opponents are maybe taking naps, they’re maybe brushing up on policy, they may be doing fundraising calls. And what is she doing? She is sitting in hair and makeup so that she can look presentable so that at the next stop, she looks like the constituents are going to want to see her look. Ever since I heard that example, it really stuck with me because it’s obvious to me as a woman that’s how that would be. But when you look at the actual impact to a candidate, fundamentally different.

Geoff Kabaservice: I was involved briefly in some candidate recruitment back in 2015. And my experience could be partial and anecdotal, but I did notice that when we brought in some extremely well-qualified women to run for a congressional seat, they would give us all these reasons why they weren’t qualified. Whereas an objectively speaking mediocre man would come in, and we told him about the need you have to have a fundraising capability and an organization and experience and all these things that he simply did not have, and he was like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: “Me. Me. Also me!” So I don’t know how representative that was, but there really did seem to be a difference there.

Ariel Hill-Davis: It’s pretty representative. I think that women are getting, and certainly I think younger women are getting more comfortable with kind of stepping into their experience and their power and their voice in a way that I think sometimes women of slightly older generations feel a little bit more constrained. So I think it’s starting to change. But certainly that is a question and an issue that we deal with when we work with candidates. A lot of it is just talking through the fact that you have valid experience and that you are perfectly capable of running for office, holding office, making decisions. It’s obviously different when you deal with candidates who either come from a business background, as opposed to really coming from more kind of community organizing, almost like traditional motherhood, into stepping into a campaign. Those are different, but I do think that the experience of having to convince a woman that she is prepared, capable, and a good candidate — that’s half the battle, in my opinion.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: It is.

Geoff Kabaservice: And I think that Republican Women For Progress has done some work with the Yale Campaign School for Women as well. Am I right about that?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Yeah. We’ve had an ongoing relationship with them for a number of years now, which is fantastic. Patty, the executive director there, does great work. And we have actually implemented… We’re on year three of a one-day training that we do specifically geared towards Republican women who are thinking about either running or getting more involved in campaign work. And the one-day training that we do — it’s typically here in Washington, although in these times it’s virtual — really gives them a sense of the different considerations and pathways to entering that kind of campaigning sphere. And so it also has allowed us to develop kind of a mini-pipeline of Republican or more conservative-leaning women to then go to the five-day intensive training at the Campaign School at Yale and have the full kind of… Patty and her wonderful roster of instructors really get them geared up to run for office.

And I think one of the things that Patty was very concerned about is the fact that they weren’t really tracking that many Republican women candidates to come through their training, and they weren’t quite sure why. And this goes back to something we were talking about earlier… A lot of the assumption, when you’re doing focused trainings or there’s a structure that’s built for women running for office, there’s this underlying assumption that it must be for Democratic women, not Republican women. And that’s a flawed assumption, but it means that Republican women were just assuming that it wasn’t for them.

So I think being able to partner with us lent enough credibility back to the Campaign School at Yale that Republican women were looking at it and seeing, “Yes, this is a pathway. This is a training that is also geared towards me. I’m not excluded from this because I’m not a Democrat. This is also a great opportunity for me.” And so in our first year, we were able to increase Republican applications and attendance, I think by over 100%, which — it was a very low number before, but we were able to bump it up. And we’ve consistently maintained that partnership to continue to be able to do so.

Geoff Kabaservice: And I think I’m correct in believing that 2020 was in fact a record year for Republican women getting elected to Congress. So what went right?

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Well, we were here doing this…

Geoff Kabaservice: Congratulations.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: No, it’s not just Republican Women for Progress. But I think what it was is a lot of organizations that operate in the space like we do had been pushing for more inclusion and more support of Republican women candidates. And I will credit Tom Emmer, who’s the chair of the NRCC, with recognizing… he and his leadership recognized that they needed to cast a bit of a broader net. And so they were willing to pull more Republican female candidates into their Young Guns Program — that’s what they call it, the Young Guns Program — where they were then getting much more institutional party support.

And typically the NRCC does not weigh in on primaries, and doesn’t weigh in especially if there’s an incumbent involved. But because there were so many retirements, there were open seats, or seats that were very narrowly held by Democrats that seemed competitive, where they were able to really throw more support behind these female candidates early on — because if we can’t get these great women through the primary, that doesn’t matter. You have to put up so many numbers to get these candidates through the primaries to actually have viable races in the general. So that if you’re not supporting them in that primary stage — I think Ariel mentioned this earlier — you’re really missing an opportunity to make a very, very large impact.

And I think that thanks to a lot of the work that organizations like Republican Women For Progress, like Julie Conway with Value In Electing Women PAC, like Elise Stefanik’s Elevate PAC — really pushing to support, not only financially, but in terms of helping getting these candidates media coverage, helping getting them trained, helping to really surround them by the support system to encourage them to, to see their candidacies through — that’s I think why we had different outcomes.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah. The only thing I’d add to that is also, and this is something that our organization has been kind of trumpeting for quite some time, which is… The seats that were flipped in 2018, a lot of those were flipped back in this cycle. But where you saw them flipping back, most of those gains were Republican women. So we’ve long said that the reason that people kind of shifted and voted Democratic in a lot of different districts in 2018 was obviously a response to Donald Trump, a desire for a stronger legislative branch to check him, and a desire to see Democrats step up to the plate. But when those same voters were given the choice between a pretty center-of-the-road, middle-of-the-road Democrat versus a maybe slightly more conservative, but also more sensible Republican woman, they oftentimes switched to the Republican woman — which we think is a really big positive and we’d like to see over and over again across the country until we get some more women in Congress. Because I think everyone benefits that way.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Well, and I think what Ariel means by “sensible” is that a lot of these candidates are women with really relevant experiences, really relevant qualifications, who really are interested in building solutions to the problems that they see this nation facing. Their desire is to govern. And the business of governing is not particularly glamorous. It’s not particularly exciting. But it’s really important. And time after time, the statistics bear out that that women who are elected — it doesn’t matter, Republican or Democrat — are more likely to co-sponsor legislation, are more likely to reach across the aisle. And so when you have more women involved, not only do you have the benefit of all of their different perspectives and experiences informing public policy, which yields better public policy, but you also have more willing collaborators in an elected body.

Geoff Kabaservice: I want to push back on that a little bit. I would think the average not-terribly-connected television viewer would hear the claim that politics becomes more moderate as more women get involved and then say, “But the only members of Congress that I know who are women are people on the extremes, whether it’s the Squad or Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.” So how do you broaden and inform that view? Let’s put it that way.

Ariel Hill-Davis: So I think part of that is honestly… I mean, I could hope for responsibility in the media, but we’re never going to get that across-the-board. But I am really tired of the kind of political gatekeeping that is happening on both sides of the spectrum, where whoever speaks the loudest, or whoever comes out with the most flamboyant opinion, is seen as directing the party. That is just not accurate for how our legislative body works. Now, there is tremendous pressure that can be put on leadership from these people who are on the fringe that are sucking up all of the oxygen in terms of being on Fox News or being all over Twitter or MSNBC or CNN — I don’t know, take your pick. But I don’t actually think that any of us benefit from giving them more airtime.

Now, I think that this goes back to my point about wanting our average American citizen to be more civically educated. Because I think if you are just getting your news by watching it, or if you’re just getting your news in bits and pieces based off of your own kind of bubbles which we all exist in, you self-selected the thinking that the only people, the only women that are in Congress are the Squad or, on our side, these QAnon believers. I think it’s a real disservice to the rest of the hardworking women in Congress that they’re tarred with this brush. I mean, really the only thing that I have to say in terms of how I think we correct that is by the media stopping their coverage — or maybe shifting their coverage — to speak more to the people who are reasonable, who are doing work, who are not interested in just creating sound bites.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Yeah. I don’t think that women necessarily, just by the fact that they are women, are not necessarily more moderate. I think that there are many women whose motivation to run for office is not to self-aggrandize or to build a brand that they can later turn into book sales. It is to do the kind of tedious, unglamorous business of governing and developing solutions for problems that I mentioned. That’s not exactly a hot ticket item for Fox News to talk about: Susan Collins helping to negotiate the COVID relief package of the past… over Christmas. But she did that. That was a huge part of her internal effort.

Ariel Hill-Davis: What are the CSPAN ratings compared to CNN and MSNBC and Fox News? Because I feel like therein lies the rub.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. You can always get better ratings by setting your hair on fire and going in front of TV than you can by actually talking about policy.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Right.

Geoff Kabaservice: But of course this is part of the drawback of the situation you’re talking about, because the people who I believe you put most of your effort and funds into are women representatives from these purple districts, the bloody trenches of American politics, where the most moderate Republicans displace the most moderate Democrats every two to four years. And therefore none of them build up seniority or become significant factors in the party. Whereas Marjorie Taylor Greene, she’s in a pretty safe Republican district.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Sure is.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: I think, Geoff, that point is excellent. Because it really highlights the fact that as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is gerrymandering and the creation of these really safe districts, that really we’ve had this multi-year, maybe even multi-decade trend away from really competitive seats where the electorate has the option to choose someone who presents the best solutions. And really, the primary has just become a race further to the left or the right, and then the general is usually these two extremes. And then people, the electorate, feels very comfortable choosing, “Well, I don’t agree with everything, but I definitely can get behind this Democrat versus that crazy Republican,” or vice versa. And really, I think there are maybe only 50 districts out of 435 that are really competitive. And that’s changed a bit with shifting demographics, and it will change with redistricting after the census, I believe, which will impact the 2022 election — although there’s some questions about aspects of this 2020 census. But I think when you have those incredibly polarized districts, there is no motivation to elect a moderate, because it’s an R+27. But I think getting involved more with the party structure and pushing back on it, I think you can get access to those districts, those safe Republican districts, and get better Republicans.

And by better, I mean bigger-tent, interested in the business of governing, like I said — interested in bipartisanship, less interested in kind of grandstanding.

Ariel Hill-Davis: I also do not agree with AOC on pretty much anything. But what I will say is that I actually think, in terms of reclaiming a center for the Republican Party, one of the things that I’ve been really struck by is taking inspiration from the Social Justice Democrats who really just dug into different communities that had been given up on in terms of, “We’re not going to make inroads there, so we’re not going to waste the time and energy and resources.” And really, how powerful growing from the grassroots and investing in areas that the traditional party is either kind of ignoring or just taking for granted. Where are those fertile grounds?

And I think there are a lot of fertile grounds in places that we’re just taking for granted right now on one side or the other. But I think that if you can start to build the space for people to voice more centrist opinions, it has to start at the state and local level. You can’t get to the federal level unless you built it on the state and the local level. So it’s going to take some time, but I do think that taking some inspiration from them in terms of getting into the trenches and just reclaiming the space is really where we are at this point.

Geoff Kabaservice: Let me ask a slightly off-kilter question. Did either of you see the Hulu series Mrs. America, about Phyllis Schlafly and the battle with the feminists over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment?

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yes.

Geoff Kabaservice: You did?

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah.

Geoff Kabaservice: What did you think?

Ariel Hill-Davis: We both enjoyed it… I have to admit I loved it and I also found it very disheartening. It felt really tough, I think, to watch similar conversations that we’re having now, or that we’ve had since 2016, being had in the ’60s. That’s really hard, I think, to sit with as a woman, as a Republican woman. And I think also some of the scenes related to the takeover, if you will, of the Republican Party by Phyllis Schlafly and the kind of the neocons and this deal that was made with the devil, in my opinion, in terms of really embracing the religious right and casting aside the more traditional republicanism — that was really hard to watch. But I loved the show. It also felt very resonant.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. I actually watched it with my mom, which was kind of an experience. And also an experience because she was pretty much rooting for Phyllis Schlafly for most of that time. Because she remembered what it was like to be a housewife in the late ’60s and to feel that the culture, at least elements of the culture, looked down on you. And I think that there was some aspect of that that the show captured that there was a kind of triumphalist, exclusionist edge to the women’s movement under people like Gloria Steinem, and that there was a kind of dismissive element to it which is even now part of our politics. I actually should say this… This March is Women’s History Month. I’m not sure if this broadcast is going to go out in Women’s History Month, but I used to teach women’s history back when I was a grad student. And women’s history has one way or another found its way into all of the books that I have written, because it is part of the American political story.

But it took a long time for people to recognize that. And in fact, when Yale University was first co-educated, some of the first women in those classes in the early ’70s went into the chairman of the history department and asked the chairman, “Why don’t we actually have a few classes on women’s history?” And he replied, “That would be like offering a course on the history of dogs or children.” And this is so far off of the radar of the way people thought back then, that part of what is interesting about the Mrs. America series is again, did people really think that way? You get some of the same thing from Mad Men. It’s like, “What?” That was really a genuinely different period. People really thought in different ways from we think now. And I always liked teaching women’s history, because that was a kind of way of teasing that out.

And yet, I kind of feel that we are condemned to fight the same battle over the Equal Rights Amendment with equally unsatisfying outcomes, because the sides are so much dug into kind of the same positions. Phyllis Schlafly was a Bircher. She dealt with a lot of crazy and fact-free arguments about a lot of things, and really didn’t gain a whole lot of traction in either the conservative movement or the Republican Party until the question of feminism came up. And then her ship came in, because then what she had to say was actually seen as not so crazy by an awful lot of women who felt really confused by the changes of the times. So as just kind of a last question here then, let me ask you Republican women how you relate to the term feminism nowadays, and the extent to which you do or do not identify with aspects of what passes under that name.

Ariel Hill-Davis: I mean, a loud and proud feminist over here. I think it’s a constant evolution of what that phrase means. I think that now we’re talking about intersectionality in terms of feminism and what that means, but I’ve never understood the hesitation at claiming that mantle. Why wouldn’t I want women to be equal? Why wouldn’t I want to fight for equality? I think the education of the last four years for me has been in the intersectional space and then looking at baked-in privilege that I didn’t recognize as privilege, and what that means in terms of how I’m pushing for equality for women who aren’t white, who do not look like me, but who have some institutional disadvantages that I have not had to confront. But I’ve never understood the hesitancy at claiming being a feminist. Kodiak, I don’t think you feel differently.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: No, I’m a feminist. But I do think you make it a very important point. And Geoff, as a trained historian who’s lent some of that lovely and enormous brain power to helping women and to promoting women, I think this will probably resonate with your point that what that term means to different people and at different times changes. When I say feminist, I mean the radical notion that women are people too, and should have an equal space and seat at the table and equal power in decision-making, equal access to financial opportunity, equal access to autonomy — bodily, mental, and otherwise.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we were calling women hysterical, and sending them away to institutions to take a break, often against their will. So I think this is an evolution. And I think reflecting on the fact that it is Women’s History Month, I’m very proud to be a woman, but I also stand on the shoulders of the women who came before me, and I am absolutely committed to making sure that the women behind me, the younger generations are standing on mine, that we are constantly making progress towards more parity and then ultimately a better social structure.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Geoff, I have a question for you though as it relates to your work and history. You just made the point, and I had already said it in terms of looking at Mrs. America, that you feel similarly that I do that we’re doomed to repeat exactly what we did and exactly what kind of happened before. I’m wondering what feels like the most striking difference to you in looking at kind of where feminism and the women’s movements are right now, compared to where they have been. What feels like the biggest pitfall that you can either see coming or that you think it’s heading towards? Because we would like to avoid that.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I guess I’m just pessimistic by nature, so when I say that I see doom coming, it’s because I think the past does tend to repeat itself. Emil Frankel was the co-founder of the Ripon Society, and he’s a dear friend, and he’s been in a number of meetings that we’ve been part of. But a person who was very important in the later history of that organization, which was a moderate Republican activist organization, was Tanya Melich, who was very committed to women’s role within the Republican Party, but ended up writing a book called The Republican War Against Women — which pretty much gives you an idea of where she felt that whole effort turned out. And so I guess there’s some room for pessimism there. I guess I feel that American voting behavior is more driven by backlashes, and people tend to vote against more than they vote for.

And I see enough on the cultural side of what Democrats aren’t even thinking about, but Republicans already are making hay over on the conservative side, to think that if Democrats don’t know enough about how to play defense on some of these cultural issues, then there will be another backlash and conservatives will be the recipients of the benefits that come from that. But what I think is different, to be honest, is the history of women’s participation in American life has pretty much been a continued upward trajectory almost everywhere outside of the Republican Party — and particularly in business, for example.

I think that it’s always hard to say what the conventional wisdom is on the managerial side. But a lot of the qualities that we typically do associate with women — including empathy, intuition, personal concern, and the ability to collaborate and see other points of view — these are important not just in politics but also in management and the way that corporations are structured now. I don’t see that changing. I don’t think there’s going to be a reversal of progress on that score. And the Republicans who are looking forward and hoping to get more of the women’s vote will say things like, “Well, women want to stay home with their children.” And I think some do, and I think that option should be open to more women, and that government can make it possible. But at the same time, that shouldn’t close opportunities of other kinds that women want to do as well. But I guess maybe this is just the congenital moderate in me speaking here. That’s the outcome I’d like to see, but usually what I see coming at us is culture wars on the feminist front as well as other fronts.

Kodiak Hill-Davis: Yeah. Geoff, this reminds me of a piece that we actually read for a book club a number of years ago that I found incredibly insightful and a little bit more optimistic, because that tends to be my role in these conversations. I believe the author was Rebecca Solnit, and she made the point about as feminists, that it’s very easy to get discouraged about a perceived lack of progress. But as you just pointed out, we are making gains and strides — even if not in the Republican Party yet, as women at various levels of society, with more options available to us, whether we want to raise children at home, whether we want to be in the workforce, or do a combination of both.

But her point was that in the one hundred years since women were enfranchised and granted the right to vote, look at all the progress that’s been made. But huge social change, like gender parity would be, doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over the course of small incremental steps over many, many, many, many years. So her advice was do not get discouraged, do not give up hope, but understand that each piece that you’re putting in place is helping drive further change. You just may not get to see it all come to fruition.

Ariel Hill-Davis: Yeah.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, since this show rarely ends on an upbeat note, and that was pretty optimistic, let’s end it there. Thank you so much Ariel Hill-Davis, Kodiak Hill-Davis, for being on the Vital Center podcast today.

[And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast as well. We hope you’ll come back with us in future episodes.]