Following a 2020 election cycle when a record number of Republican women were elected to Congress, a class that included U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma’s 5th District, a new political action committee in Oklahoma hopes to build similar momentum at the state level.
Called Promoting Oklahoma Women in Elections and Representation (POWhER), the new PAC cut its first checks this week to Bice, R-Oklahoma City; State Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan; State Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City; and District 2 District Attorney Angela Marsee.
The PAC registered with the state last month but has not yet filed its first expense report. The four initial donations were each for $1,000, according to Donelle Harder, the PAC’s chair.
The path to political power for women has commonly been in the Democratic party – 106 of the 144 women in Congress are Democrats, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
In the Oklahoma Legislature, which is heavily Republican, 17 of the 33 female members are Republican. The state’s total number of female members ranks 40th among all state legislatures.
Nationally, Democratic women outnumber Republican women in state legislatures by a two to one margin, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In all state legislatures across the country, just 9.6 percent of members are Republican women, according to The Frontier’s analysis of NCSL data.
“Putting women at the table, especially Republican women, empowers a voice that is often left aside,” said Lisa Billy, a board member of the POWhER PAC and former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Billy was the first woman, first Native American and first Republican elected to state House District 42, beginning a 12-year legislative career in 2004.
During her first campaign, Billy said she learned about a political group that helped elect women and Native Americans but only supported Democrats.
“They apologized to me because I was running as a Republican,” Billy said. “I want to be able to support more conservative women, those who have principles that align with mine.”
The new PAC comes at a time when Republican women have built some momentum in Congress after doubling their ranks this past election cycle.
Democratic women still outnumber Republicans in Congress but the Democratic party also has a longer history of organizing around female candidates, including from groups like Emily’s List.
However, there is a growing number of Republican PACs now supporting female candidates at the national level, including Winning for Women, which donated more than $3 million last election cycle.
“I think where you have seen a real difficulty on the GOP side is just this surround sound support that frankly the left has been pretty good at doing for the last several decades through organizations like Emily’s List and others,” said Rebecca Schuller, a Winning for Women board member, speaking on a forum last November.
“We are here to make sure our women are getting the same support,”
In Oklahoma, seeing more gender equity within the state Legislature may have to come through the Republican party, said Lee Denney, a board member with POWhER and a former state representative.
If women made up every Democratic member of the state Legislature, men would still outnumber women 104 to 45.
“Women are certainly underrepresented in the (state) Legislature and electing more Republican women is a way to change that,” Denney said.
Denny said she doesn’t expect the PAC to focus much on specific partisan policies or ideology. She also hopes the PAC can help support Republican women at all levels of government, including local races.
In addition to Harder, the PAC’s first chair and CEO of Pliris Strategies, Billy and Denney, the POWhER board includes Jenna Worthen, AJ Griffin, Patrice Douglas, Jennifer Howard, Rachel Brewer and Julia Jernigan, according to a release issued by the PAC.
The PAC also hopes to mobilize volunteers around candidates, especially for those who may not have deep political roots.
“We want to be able to help empower women not just for financial assistance but also with volunteers because that support can be just as important,” Billy said.
“It can be tough when someone tells you, ‘I don’t think women can do this job,’ or ‘only white men can do the job.’ These are quotes that were told to me (when I was running). But having financial backing, having a group that is behind you can make all the difference in the world.”