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In Pinellas, Republican women set their eye on Congress amid building momentum

Recent efforts to support conservative women in the primaries may come into play in Florida’s 13th Congressional District.
The Capitol is seen at dawn. A record number of Republican women were elected to Congress in 2020. Republicans hope to keep the momentum going in the midterms.
The Capitol is seen at dawn. A record number of Republican women were elected to Congress in 2020. Republicans hope to keep the momentum going in the midterms. [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE | AP ]
Published Feb. 2, 2022|Updated Feb. 2, 2022

Republican women made historic gains in Congress in 2020 and are hoping to expand their reach in the 2022 midterms.

That ambition is playing out among four women vying for Florida’s 13th Congressional District in Pinellas, with each hoping to be part of the momentum conservative women have been building.

“It’s not about identity politics, it’s about conservative values,” said Amanda Makki, one of the Republicans in the race for Florida’s District 13, which is considered a key seat in Republicans’ push to flip the House. “But it’s also about making sure we are a reflection of the people we are seeking to represent.”

In 2020, a record number of Republican women won seats in Congress amid efforts by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and others to support women in primaries.

Still, Congress remains overwhelmingly male, making up 73 percent of the House and 76 percent of the Senate, according to early 2021 data from Pew Research.

Data from the National Republican Congressional Committee shows, as of January, 210 Republican women had filed to run for U.S. seats in the upcoming midterms compared to 181 at the same point in the last election.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District seat is now held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running for Florida governor. Among Republicans looking to replace him: Anna Paulina Luna, who ran in 2020 but lost in the general election to Crist; Makki, a Republican strategist who lost to Luna in the primary; nonprofit founder Audrey Henson; and business owner Christine Quinn.

Attorney Kevin Hayslett also last month announced his intent to run in the Republican primary.

Related: Among FL-13 fundraisers, Anna Paulina Luna leads the pack, latest FEC filings show

In Florida’s history, fewer than 25 women have been elected to Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The majority of those women were Democrats — consistent with the national trend, where Democratic women outnumber their Republican congressional counterparts 3-to-1.

Amanda Makki is a Republican candidate for Florida's 13th Congressional District
Amanda Makki is a Republican candidate for Florida's 13th Congressional District [ Courtesy of Amanda Makki campaign ]

Of the 27 U.S. representatives Floridians sent to the Capitol this session, only two are Republican women.

But in recent years, the Republican Party has worked to bring more women into the fold. The GOP’s conference chair, Stefanik, founded a political committee after the 2018 midterms to promote women in their primaries, an attempt at developing the kind of infrastructure that has helped rocket women in the Democratic Party forward.

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Both Luna and Makki were selected as candidates for Stefanik’s political committee when they ran in 2020, and both were chosen as “Women to Watch” this cycle.

Makki said Stefanik’s support in 2020 was instrumental in connecting her with donors around the country. Especially for a candidate who isn’t an incumbent, financial support is vital.

“Her being in leadership, you come up in leadership meetings, you come up in meetings with people throughout the country who are trying to determine which races to invest in,” she said.

If representative democracy is supposed to reflect the nation’s makeup, then having more women in the party is an important goal, Makki said.

It’s also important so that Democratic women’s voices don’t become the de facto standard, she said. Makki said that, as a woman from the Middle East who had to flee as a child, she wants to be a conservative counterpoint to liberal women from the region like Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

“I think that’s very important for the Republican Party to have strong conservative messengers who also come from different backgrounds,” Makki said. “My family didn’t come here on the Mayflower.”

When she met with Stefanik in 2020, Luna said Stefanik walked her through what to expect as a young woman running for office — advice Luna said validated what she had already seen on the campaign trail.

Related: Race for Florida’s 13th district brings in national, local endorsements

Luna said she’d like to see the party recruiting more minority candidates. She said as a woman, she feels she gets extra criticism from people attempting to police her speech based on her skin tone, including people saying she’s too white to identify as Hispanic.

Anna Paulina Luna
Anna Paulina Luna [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“I can tell you one of the most disturbing comments I hear from the other side of the aisle regarding conservative women are comments regarding physical sexuality and intelligence,” Luna wrote in an email.

Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has studied gender in politics extensively. Her research found that in a general election, when a woman runs against a man, the woman faces no deficit; people will vote for the candidate of their party, regardless of gender.

But it’s hard for women, especially Republican women, to break out of a primary, Dolan said. Party leadership is still largely white and male, so recruiting is an issue.

“We know that people tend to look for people who look like themselves when recruiting candidates,” she said.

The Republican women who have been visible and successful in recent years are often further to the right — women like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and others, Dolan said.

It’s a stark difference from earlier decades, when a female Republican lawmaker was often more moderate than her colleagues, Dolan said.

“They are practicing identity politics of a slightly different brand, and the identity is Trump non-Trump,” Dolan said. “If you’re Trumpy enough, it’s possible that a Republican voter who might not love the idea of voting for a woman will go ‘She’s certainly with the president.’ ”

Catherine Wineinger, a professor at Western Washington University, has an upcoming book about women within the GOP. She said Republican women have helped organize, mentor and lift each other up.

She said Republican women are recognizing the power of the intersection of their identities, as a conservative and a woman or a woman of color, and are organizing around that.

Their increased presence also allows pushback on the idea that conservative decisions come only from powerful white men.

Audrey Henson
Audrey Henson [ Provided ]

Henson, a candidate for Florida’s 13th District, founded a nonprofit focused on connecting low-income people across the nation with the support they need for congressional internships.

Henson said her run and her work in politics is about supporting working-class people, including women. Henson worked on Stefanik’s first campaign and said she’s inspired by Stefanik’s work supporting women in the party.

For Henson, she said she’s faced the misconception that, as a young woman, she must be liberal.

When she was a college student at the University of South Florida, she said she was in the minority as a conservative woman in her classes and public service organizations. But when she visited campus recently, she said the college Republican club was majority women.

“It’s really exciting to see in a short amount of time how much we’ve really grown and been able to expand our party and to bring people into the fold.”

Christine Quinn
Christine Quinn [ Courtesy of Christine Quinn ]

Quinn, another candidate in the 13th District, said she’s never considered herself in the women’s liberation movement but had to learn how to navigate a male-dominated industry when she started her spice-mix business three decades ago.

Quinn said she thinks women have always been a driving force in politics, saying she remembers the “gray-haired ladies” making phone calls, canvassing and organizing back when she volunteered for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.

“I think women have always been there,” Quinn said. “I think we just saw more men being elected and women pushing them and now, now it’s like ‘OK, I have time.’ "