Women of color are running for Congress in record numbers. Will Republican and Democratic women change the face of Congress?

At least 115 women of color are nominees for the U.S. House in 2020.

Video byJessica Naudziunas, Faith Bernstein, Asher May-Corsini, and Tony Morrison
October 21, 2020, 4:07 AM

Cori Bush, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, did not grow up thinking she would become a member of Congress.

She is a formerly homeless Black woman who faced domestic violence and became a single mom while living in a congressional district that had been represented by members of the same family for a half-century.

Yet in August, Bush -- who became a progressive activist after Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, -- ousted longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary of Missouri's 1st Congressional District, ending a political dynasty.

"It wasn't until after Michael Brown was murdered ... when I just realized that there has to be more to this seat, especially when we don't see our Congress member out here [at the protests] at all," Bush told "Good Morning America." "That's when my eyes started to open that something is missing."

The community leader turned political hopeful is on the ballot again, and this time she's favored to win Missouri's 1st Congressional district — putting an end to a family dynasty in the Show-Me State.
The community leader turned political hopeful is on the ballot again, and this time she's favored to win Missouri's 1st Congressional district — putting an end to a family dynasty in the Show-Me State.

Bush, 44, first ran and lost against Lacy Clay in 2018, the election cycle dubbed the "year of the women" for the record number of females elected to Congress. Two years later, with the nation mired in racial unrest, Bush's primary win puts her at the forefront of a new record-breaking election cycle, this time because more women of color are running for Congress than ever before.

At least 115 women of color -- women who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander (API), Black, Latina, Middle Eastern or North African (MENA), Native American, and/or multiracial -- are nominees for the U.S. House in 2020, a new record according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.

That 115 women includes record numbers of Native American women and Black women and Latinas running.

In the current Congress, just 48 out of the 127 women serving are women of color, according to CAWP.

PHOTO: The Center for American Women and Politics data shows women of color running for Congress.
The Center for American Women and Politics data shows women of color running for Congress.
The Center for American Women and Politics

"One of the things we know is that when women run, they win at about the same rate that men do," said Debbie Walsh, director of the CAWP. "Our challenge in many ways has been not enough candidates, so seeing more candidates will bring us more representation and more office holders for women and women of color."

What motivated women of color to run in 2020?

Bush said she wants to bring to Congress a direct link to the people of her district and the issues they face daily, and fight for big ideas like criminal justice reform, policing reform, Medicare and education for all and equal rights.

"I'm taking my own lived experience to Congress, and what so many people in my community have gone through where they have felt, you know, neglected, under-represented, just not heard," she said. "I'm not going to stop being an activist just because I'll be in Congress.”

The Women Who Run - Cori Bush
The Women Who Run - Cori Bush
ABC News Photo Illustration

For Tamika Hamilton, a Republican and first-time candidate for California's 3rd Congressional District, getting involved in her local community after retiring from 14 years active duty in the U.S. Air Force opened her eyes to running for office.

From there, the Dixon, California, resident, who remains a sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, said seeing the high rates of homelessness, particularly among veterans, motivated her to put her name on the ballot, as well as other issues that affect her district like jobs, middle class tax cuts and water for the farming community.

A mom of four, she said she also wants to make sure her kids grow up in an America that is free and strong.

My motivation to run is truly thinking about our future

"My motivation to run is truly thinking about our future, and thinking about what life could be like if we don't continue to be able to be free," said Hamilton. "I know it sounds cliché to a lot of people, but it's really important to me that my children grow up in an environment that they can express [themselves] freely, and they can be who they are."

Tamika Hamilton - Republican Candidate for California's 3rd Congressional District
Tamika Hamilton - Republican Candidate for California's 3rd Congressional District
ABC News Photo Illustration

Another reason more women of color are running for office is that success begets success, according to Walsh. She said it is no accident that more women are running in 2020 after a year like 2018, which saw political newcomers like Rep. Lauren Underwood, a Black woman who won in a majority-white Illinois district, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Hispanic woman who defeated a longtime incumbent in New York, storm the national stage.

"The positive part of doing this [is] we're showing that it can be done," said Michelle De La Isla, the current mayor of Topeka, Kansas, and the Democratic candidate in Kansas' 2nd Congressional District. "If a single mother of Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Black, Italian descent can be running in Kansas, anybody can run anywhere, and my daughters are getting to grow up with a woman that they're seeing is being able to do that."

The Women Who Run 2020
The Women Who Run 2020
ABC News Photo Illustration

Political analysts also do not underestimate the role of President Donald Trump's surprise 2016 win over Hillary Clinton, who would have made history as the first woman president, in motivating women, especially Democratic women, to run.

"For any type of political movement, what you generally would expect is a catalyst event, and in this case the catalyst event was the election of Donald Trump," said Rachel Bitecofer, editor of The Cycle, a political forecasting site. "We really are looking at some extra urgency among women of color who feel particularly maligned -- and they should -- under this administration."

Of the 36 new women who were elected to the House in 2018, only one of them was a Republican. This year, 33 women of color are running for Congress as Republicans, compared to 82 women of color running as Democrats, according to the CAWP.

"I think a lot of Republican women were inspired by seeing the success of women on the Democratic side [in 2018] and getting a little tired of the narrative that Republican women weren't interested in politics or that they didn't have a role within their own party," said Walsh. "I absolutely think that seeing [any] women of color run for office inspires others."

Experts say, too, that more women of color running for office is a direct reflection of people realizing the impact lawmakers have on their lives -- and a realization that lawmakers don't always reflect their own lives.

"Our country is changing and for way too long, young women have looked at what a leader is made of, and it doesn't look like them," said De La Isla. "And more and more, our country is becoming more diverse."

The Women Who Run - Michelle De La Isla
The Women Who Run - Michelle De La Isla
ABC News Photo Illustration

Women of color are around 40% of the female population in the U.S., yet women of color constitute 9% of the total 535 members of Congress. On the state level, women of color constitute 5% of total statewide elective executives, according to CAWP.

If we want to change the laws in this country, we must change the lawmakers

"I think folks are really seeing the connection between if we want to change the laws in this country, we must change the lawmakers," said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, which supports progressive Black candidates. "We've just had women see that you don't have to have a cookie-cutter resume to run for office."

A bid to be taken seriously: Running for office as a women of color

For some candidates, a particularly difficult aspect of running as a woman of color is raising enough money to get on the ballot and then win a race that typically costs millions of dollars.

"One of the hardest things of being a woman has been the fundraising ... because you can imagine, [I'm] calling to ask for support and they're like, 'A De La Isla in Kansas?,'" said De La Isla, who is balancing being a single mom, a congressional candidate and a mayor.

And if national party leaders have to choose between two candidates in a swing district and one is a woman of color without a "personal Rolodex" to call on for fundraising, and the other is a traditional candidate, a white male who has connections to raise money, the overwhelming majority of time, the white male will get the party's support, explained Bitecofer.

Women of color candidates also have to deal with the "otherism" of their campaign.

If Hamilton wins her election in California, she would be only the second Black Republican woman elected to the U.S. House in history.

"When I first walked into my Republican Central Committee Meeting, they looked at me like, ‘What are you doing here?,'" recalled Hamilton. "I was kind of taken back because I thought it would be about policy, it would be about my ideology, and they were like, ‘Well, we just have never seen a Black woman Republican before."

In the past two election cycles, some Republican women of color have also been in difficult positions because of the candidate at the top of the ballot, Trump, according to Jennifer P. Lim, founder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress, a grassroots policy organization that supports women candidates.

"In 2018 when so many Republican women ran and lost, one of the biggest challenges they had was they were always being asked about Donald Trump," she said. "If you're a woman running for the Republican party, and especially if you're a minority woman running right now as a Republican, people have a lot of questions about that."

Hamilton said she has faced criticisms from both the left and right for being a Black Republican with Trump as the party's leader, adding, "I don't fit any of those molds."

Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee, a Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois's 10th Congressional District, said she identifies as a "purple Republican" who isn't going to leave the party because of Trump.

"Twenty-five years ago, the Republican Party stood for something, and today, our platform is different, no problem," said Ramirez Mukherjee, who is of Mexican and Slovenian descent. "So I'll take some of my Republican principles, some of the Democratic principles, some of the Independent principles that neither one are talking about."

On both sides of the political aisle, running as a woman of color means fighting stereotypes and discrimination, according to Brown James.

"Ninety percent of all elected officials in this country are white, and out of that 90%, the majority are male, so when you speak about politics and who is a politician, the first thing that pops into your mind is probably the image of a white male," she said. "That's the narrative that we're working to change."

The community leader turned political hopeful is on the ballot again, and this time she's favored to win Missouri's 1st Congressional district — putting an end to a family dynasty in the Show-Me State.
The community leader turned political hopeful is on the ballot again, and this time she's favored to win Missouri's 1st Congressional district — putting an end to a family dynasty in the Show-Me State.

Brown James's group, The Collective, runs trainings specifically for women of color candidates because they have such a different experience on the campaign trail.

"As women, we are just policed. Our bodies are policed. Our tone of voice is policed. What does your hair look like? You should you should cover your gray. What is she wearing? Did she gain weight? Did she lose weight?," said Marilyn Strickland, a Democratic candidate in Washington's 10th District who would be the first African-American person to represent Washington state at the federal level and the first Korean American woman elected to Congress.

"I say this because that is part of the process of being elected," she said. "But at the same time it's another layer of what you have to experience, in addition to showing that you’re competent, showing what you stand for, trying to get votes."

Many women of color candidates say they also face questions about who is taking care of their children while they campaign and why they would be so ambitious as to run for Congress, in addition to comments about their appearances.

I feel like we have to go above and beyond the normal standard for a male candidate

"I have a 4-year-old daughter. I get asked all the time, 'Well, this event is at 8 p.m. What are you going to do with your daughter?,' as if I don't have a husband at home," said Kim Klacik, the Republican candidate in Maryland's 7th Congressional District. "I feel like we have to go above and beyond the normal standard for a male candidate."

"Hopefully because we're all [women] running here in different races, hopefully we can change that so that it's not the norm," she said. "We can still have flaws just like any other candidate and still be a great candidate and represent everyone in our district equally."

A bright spot for female candidates running in 2020 is they can be more authentic in their campaigns than at any point in history, according to Walsh. In recent campaigns, women of color candidates in particular have spoken openly about miscarriages, domestic violence, substance abuse and financial difficulties.

"They talked about who they were and their lives and it made them more real and frankly I think it made them more accessible to voters," said Walsh. "Ten years ago, a woman would have been told, 'You can't talk about these things,' ... but now I think those vulnerabilities make candidates more real."

What happens when women of color are in Congress

In its more than 230-year history, Congress had never had a caucus focused on the issue of Black maternal health, even though the U.S. has an epidemic of black women dying in pregnancy-related deaths.

That changed last year when freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., a registered nurse, partnered with other women of color lawmakers to launch the first Black Maternal Health Caucus, tasked with establishing Black maternal health as a "national priority."

That is just one example, experts say, of why women of color in elected office matter more than just tracking record-breaking numbers and statistics.

Political science research has proven time and again that women of all backgrounds in office bring attention to and take action on issues affecting women more often than their male colleagues. One analysis found that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen and also sponsor and cosponsor more bills.

Another study found that women legislators sponsor more bills on women's issues than their male colleagues, but also achieve less success in passing the bills, leading the researchers to conclude, "increasing gender diversity within a legislature may lead to increased attention to, and successful passage of, women's issue bills."

"Everybody who serves in office brings their experience to the table, women and men," said Walsh. "But one of the things that you want is to have the experiences of not just white, straight men who are middle-aged or older and who are attorneys."

You want a set of experiences in the mix that reflect who we are in America

"You want a set of experiences in the mix that reflect who we are in America," she said. "It matters that you have a Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or a Rep. Abby Lea Finkenauer, [D-IA], who are carrying student loan debt, because, guess what, so are an enormous number of people in this country and now there are some people in Congress who know firsthand what that feels like and understand it and are going to talk about it in ways that other folks don't."

Strickland said she considers being a woman of color in particular an asset to her campaign.

"As women of color, we have to navigate the world in a much different way," she said. "We show up at work and we are often the only [race or gender in the room]. We have to navigate different spaces and to just exist in this world requires us to be flexible and fluid and adaptable, and I think that's well-suited for politics."

What happens next

Increased numbers of women of color candidates is a trend here to stay, experts say.

Candidates like Cori Bush in 2020 and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 all ran and won as challengers within their own party seeking to unseat longtime incumbents, one of the hardest things to do in politics, according to Walsh.

Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez are now connecting with newcomers like Bush to guide them on Capitol Hill.

"She represents such an important movement that is now just starting to get an expanded foothold into the United States Congress," Ocasio-Cortez said of Bush. "To me, she just represents a fidelity to everyday people over profit and over the influence of corporate lobbyists that we so badly need, and she’s just an incredible human being and I think it’s so important that we’re having her here in Congress."

PHOTO: Cori Bush, the Democratic candidate in Missouri's 1st District, meets with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) in her Capitol Hill office.
Cori Bush, the Democratic candidate in Missouri's 1st District, meets with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) in her Capitol Hill office.

In addition to challenging incumbents, women of color are also running and winning in districts that are not minority-majority districts, according to Walsh.

"That has been part of the conventional wisdom in politics in the past, that women of color can win but they can only win in a district that is majority Black or majority Latino," she said. "That opens up new possibilities in the conventional thinking about politics and the role of women of color. It eliminates that thinking of they can't do it in that type of district, or they can't run statewide."

Just as in 2020 when women ran after being inspired by the women of 2018, experts predict another female wave will come in 2022 and beyond.

"If we are doing this and we are talking about this, other little girls, boys, minorities, immigrants like my husband, are going to look and say, ‘I didn’t know that was possible. If it’s possible for them, it might be possible for me,' so this is the beginning," said Ramirez Mukherjee. "And hopefully the momentum will pick up and it’s not going to be 100 years for another woman to be on the general election ballot in my District 10."

The Women Who Run - Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee
The Women Who Run - Valerie Ramirez Mukherjee
ABC News Photo Illustration

Brown James also said she hopes to see more women of color in years to come running at the state and local levels, where they are still vastly underrepresented.

"We don't talk enough about the disparity at the state level," she said. "We have a long way to go."

Likewise on the federal level, even with the advances of 2018, there is still a long way to go, especially in ensuring that women of color candidates not only run for office, but win.

"That's what's annoying about when the Republican Party touts, 'Look at how many Republican women are running.' Most of those Republican women are going to lose," said Lim. "We're going to have very modest gains in terms of gender equality on the Republican side. It doesn't matter if a lot of Republican women run. What matters is if they win. That's the piece that's missing."

Tims, the Democratic candidate in Ohio's 10th Congressional District, said that the goal for women is also to go beyond winning and being the first in history books, but to "really make change."

The goal, however, is to win

"We're seeing a lot of momentum on the ground ... the goal, however, is to win," said Tims, who would be the second youngest African-American woman elected to Congress in history. "To make sure that the values and the conversations I'm having with people on the ground make it to the halls of Congress, so that we cannot just see the change, but be the change and have the change that we need."

Experts are hopeful, too, about the support of much needed outside groups in helping to move women of color from hopefuls to House members, groups like The Collective, Higher Heights for America and Republican Women for Progress.

And in the year 2020, as the U.S. marks the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote, women of color candidates say they hope to win so no other women have to be a "first."

"I'm dying to get [Congress] so that I can ... hold the door open so that other people can run through it and I'm not the first anymore, Democrat or Republican," said De La Isla, adding of the number of women in office, "When we get to a place in which the diversity in Congress and in the Senate is so much that there is no more 'first,' that we are honoring each other's background and story and we're able to talk to each other, that will be enough."