“We need to do a better job of recruiting women candidates and getting them elected,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on CNN, just one day after the 2018 midterm elections slashed the number of Republican women on Capitol Hill nearly in half. The head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) followed with a promise to enlist 2020 challengers who “look like America.”
And rank-and-file women are growing more strident in their criticism of GOP leaders.
“I am going to keep pointing out to my colleagues that we are at a crisis level for GOP women,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who has spearheaded efforts to support more women in Republican primaries. “This election should be a wake-up call.”
It sounds like a historic mobilization to confront a gender disparity problem that has dogged the GOP for years.
There’s just one problem: Republicans have said it all before.
“I think 2012 was a wake-up call for a lot of us,” Sharon Day said in 2014, when she was co-chair of the Republican National Committee. “We decided that we aren’t just speaking to women’s clubs and that the only way we are going to change the dynamics of our party and our politics is to have more women running.”
Then, as now, the number of Republican women in Congress had fallen sharply in the previous election. Then, as now, the party seemed to snap to attention. The National Republican Congressional Committee launched Project GROW (Growing Republican Opportunities for Women) to recruit and train women to run for the U.S. House. A former George W. Bush official launched RightNow PAC to focus on young women interested in seeking office. And conservative businesswoman Carly Fiorina launched the Unlocking Potential Project to build a network of female activists.
Today, some members of the party are regarding the trail of failed and squandered initiatives and doubting that Republicans will do better this time around. The party’s leadership, donor class, local politics and messaging are all still dominated by men. Many of them have personally primed the party to be suspicious of diversity efforts or are a part of the very infrastructure that has failed female candidates for so long.
“All the efforts that I’ve seen in the past to recruit more women have been very halfhearted,” said one former Republican statewide elected official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of her current job. “It’s never been taken very seriously, and I have yet to see the evidence that it will be this time.”
The gender gap on the right is stark. In any given Congress, there have never been more than 30 Republican women, while the number of Democratic women hasn’t fallen below 30 since 1993. Like its constituents, the women of the GOP are overwhelmingly white. Just one of the 47 women of color serving in Congress, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, is a Republican.
A Lack Of ‘Consistent Champions’ — And Cash
Ask Republicans why they lag far behind Democrats when it comes to electing women, and they typically will cite a host of structural factors: More women vote Democratic. Democrats have been courting female candidates for longer. Republicans do recruit plenty of women to run for office — they just wash out in the primaries, where male-dominated donor networks and power structures prevail.
“All the efforts that I’ve seen in the past to recruit more women have been very halfhearted.”
It’s certainly true that Democrats have a decadeslong head start. “EMILY’s List didn’t happen overnight,” goes one common refrain on the right, referring to the juggernaut political action committee founded in 1985 to support pro-choice Democratic women. Last year, EMILY’s List raised a record-smashing $110 million.
But what this and other explanations gloss over is how many times Republicans have tried to catch up — and failed.
Those initiatives the GOP launched after the 2012 elections all proved short-lived or failed to inspire permanent enthusiasm. Three years after the NRCC founded the recruitment project known as GROW, a survey found that fewer than 2 in 10 Republican donors knew what it was. By 2016, the project appeared to be leaderless and the NRCC said it would “reabsorb” GROW into its general recruitment efforts. Fiorina’s Unlocking Potential PAC, after raising $1.9 million in 2014, raised only $244,000 in 2016 (Fiorina was also running for president that year), and it ceased operating by the 2018 midterms. The RightNow PAC, which focuses on small donors, has never cracked a quarter-million dollars in fundraising.
“There have been so many of these efforts over the years to get women’s initiatives off the ground, and they never really get the permanent, institutional support they need,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, who sits on RightNow’s board of directors and is a vocal proponent of electing more Republican women.
One obstacle is that the party’s attacks on the “identity politics” of the left at large have primed Republican activists and donors to be suspicious of gender equality efforts. “They see what the left does as pure pandering,” Schaeffer said. Probably as a consequence, one survey found that only 11% of Republican donors — versus 62% of Democratic donors — viewed the underrepresentation of women in politics as the result of limited opportunity.
Beyond the donor class, voters report little interest in helping Republicans close the gap. Polls and studies of Democratic voters show they are more likely to support a woman between two equally matched candidates. But surveys of Republican voters have more or less found the opposite: that a significant portion — though, not a majority — are less inclined to support a candidate who is a woman or to believe that more women in office is a positive.
Democrats spend tens of millions of dollars across multiple organizations to recruit and train women. By contrast, said Melissa Gesing, the executive director of 50-50 in 2020, a nonpartisan Iowa group focused on gender parity in the legislature, she’s had fellow Republicans challenge her over even the most modest efforts at parity. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not going to vote for someone just because she’s a woman.’ It’s this persistent misperception about what we’re after,” she noted.
“They see what the left does as pure pandering.”
Schaeffer has struggled to persuade groups to invest in not just individual candidates but broader polling and research about the hurdles facing female candidates — the kind of investment groups like EMILY’s List make on an ongoing basis.
A majority of Republican donors have never heard of their party’s biggest initiatives to recruit and support more female officeholders, that same survey of donors found. Two in five Republican donors had never heard of Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion PAC that mostly supports women. Nearly 80% of Republican donors had never heard of Maggie’s List (the conservative answer to EMILY’s List), 91% had never heard of ShePAC, (a similar endeavor launched by a former Sarah Palin adviser) and 95% had never heard of VIEW PAC (a less conservative version of Maggie’s List). When the survey was published, in 2015, VIEW PAC and Susan B. Anthony List had been around for two decades.
It doesn’t help that some of the most high-profile efforts to involve more women have been the pet project of just one or two committed individuals. When they leave their roles, the party doesn’t always coalesce around them to support their work. The Women’s Majority Network, for example, which Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) created when she was head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, became an entry point into Republican politics for many women who went on to hold elected office. Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) was an early participant before she was elected. But the project barely outlived Dole’s tenure after she stepped down from the NRSC in 2007.
“We just don’t have those consistent champions,” said Lindi Harvey, whom Dole tapped as the Majority Network’s first executive director.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m not going to vote for someone just because she’s a woman.’ It’s this persistent misperception about what we’re after.”
Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) reportedly passed over Rep. Ann Wagner (Mo.) for the position of NRCC director in favor of Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.). Wagner had a plan to elect more women to the caucus. Emmer, by contrast, said efforts by Stefanik and others to help female candidates through their primaries were “a mistake.”
“How Do We Get The Woman To Win?”
Recently, the party has done a little more to install those champions in high places. Stefanik served as the NRCC’s recruitment chair in 2018, a role in which she tapped more than 100 Republican women to run for office in 2018. (Just one made it to Congress.)
Brooks, who took over for Stefanik, and her team have met with 172 female recruits and 81 minority recruits, a spokesman for the NRCC said. Stefanik is currently working to coordinate groups like SBA List and VIEW PAC so their efforts are not so siloed, she said in an interview.
There are other signs that this go-around, the establishment is putting real effort behind its promises.
At the first postelection meeting of the Republican National Committee after 2012, “The only real discussion of how to get more women to run was relegated to a ‘women’s luncheon’ and it was optional,” said a former elected official who attended.
By contrast, this May, at a meeting that McCarthy regularly convenes with dozens of his top donors, the House minority leader invited Stefanik and the executive director of Winning for Women, a new PAC supporting Republican women in primaries, to showcase their efforts to recruit more women. The not-so-subtle message, said a person familiar with the event, was to donate to Stefanik’s and Winning for Women’s political action committees. Both groups support women in competitive Republican primaries, which have proved to be a major chokepoint for many women.
“A majority of Republican donors have never heard of their party’s biggest initiatives to recruit and support more female officeholders.”
“McCarthy is obsessed with recruiting women,” said one longtime Republican operative, who requested anonymity to describe private conversations. McCarthy’s enthusiasm is shared by the party’s electoral arms, where there is discussion of how to give certain women a boost in the primaries. “In the party hierarchy, at the NRCC, I will be sitting in the room looking at a bunch of [primary] candidates — say there’s four people running, a woman and three men — asking, ‘How do we get the woman to win?’” the operative said.
The NRCC spokesman said the group does not interfere in the primaries. But a party source confirmed the NRCC often steers female candidates towards groups that can help them prevail in the primaries.
In an interview, Stefanik said she now believes Emmer, McCarthy and the rest of the party’s leadership are “absolutely” active enough. “We’re moving in the right direction,” she said.
PTA Moms And The ‘Estrogen Palace’
But that energy doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the party’s national leaders to donors and local leaders, the operative said. Or, to voters.
“My suspicion is, there’s just not interest on the ground,” Schaeffer, the member of RightNow’s board, added. “If you go out to most Republican voters, they’re going to say, ‘Why does this matter?’”
Disinterest from voters and local power brokers means that state legislatures, where roughly half of members of Congress get their start, are overwhelmingly male in states where Republicans are dominant.
In Louisiana, where only 16% of legislators are women, the party’s outgoing chair blamed the dearth of elected women on women and what he saw as their inability to stomach the campaign trail. “The guys, for the most part, let a lot of the vitriol bounce off of them,” said the former chair, Roger Villere, who retired in early 2018. “Whereas the ladies tend to hold a grudge a little longer … I would like to have a woman but if I can’t, then we’ll go with the men. I’m not going to go with a weak Republican woman who doesn’t really want to run.”
Louisiana state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who takes part in efforts to elect more GOP women, said she disagreed vehemently but that his views are common among the men who make up most of the state’s leadership. She encountered chauvinism when she first ran for office, she said, and the local establishment tried to push her out of the race.
“My opponent’s campaign manager called me personally two days after I announced and said the powers that be have decided that he’s the person for the job, and I was just a PTA mom,” she said.
Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, said she ran into a similar bout of sexism in her gubernatorial race, which she joined after narrowly losing an underdog challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley.
“I will believe to the day I die that had I been a man and come as close to beating Bill Bradley in the Senate race, I would not have had a three-way primary” but a clear path to the nomination, Whitman said. “My gender clearly made some people uncomfortable. When I got into office and started appointing women to positions they hadn’t traditionally held, I heard a lot of rumbling in my party about the ‘estrogen palace.’”
A Moderate Wipeout
It’s not as though Republican efforts to recruit more women have made no impact.
Many pointed to the Republican State Leadership Committee as an example of a successful recruitment effort. There are roughly as many Republican women as Democratic women elected to statewide office.
“The powers that be have decided that he’s the person for the job, and I was just a PTA mom.”
Winning for Women credits its spending with helping Joan Perry advance to the Republican runoff for the vacant House seat in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District. After Republicans’ 2012 “wake-up call” prompted a wave of new initiatives, the number of GOP women in Congress crept upward for the next two election cycles. Most of the Republican women currently serving in Congress benefited from those groups in some small way, including Stefanik and Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.).
But just as many women whom those groups supported have failed to hang on. Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), who helped found GROW, lost to a male primary challenger in 2016. Former Reps. Mia Love (Utah), Mimi Walters (Calif.) and Barbara Comstock (Va.) were all wiped out in the 2018 midterms. They represented moderate districts, where a backlash of suburban female voters against President Donald Trump helped Democrats win big.
For some, that backlash represents yet another possibility: that the Republican Party is too ideologically extreme for many would-be female candidates.
“I’m not sure Republicans are terribly serious about having more women in office,” Whitman said. “The party is not very reflective of the vision of many Republican women.”
And there is some research to support this thinking. Take the well-educated class of people, those employed in elite job sectors, which produces most congressional candidates: Researchers have found there are twice as many women with that background in the Democratic Party compared with the GOP. Many of the Republican women who lost their House races in 2018 held seats in purple districts.
Another study argued that Republican women in state legislatures tend to have more moderate voting records than their male counterparts and that this makes them more likely to opt out of ideologically driven congressional primary contests.
The Republican woman who formerly held statewide office agreed that the party’s rightward pivot is a potential roadblock — even if she doesn’t believe that misogyny in the party is holding women back.
“If you are ideologically inside the box, there’s nothing to stop you,” she said. But “I knew that I would never have a national career because I was pro-choice and pro-marriage equality, and those are just not acceptable positions in any national [Republican] candidate. I couldn’t be considered for ambassadorial roles, appointments to the [Department of Health and Human Services], anything that touched the issue of abortion at all.”
She added: “My gut is there are more moderate Republican women than we realize who would never put themselves forward.”
Matt Fuller contributed reporting.