Ballot Box

Women flood ranks of GOP

Getty Images

Republicans believe they had a breakthrough year with female candidates, electing several with unimpeachable resumes to Congress in 2014.

The GOP will send Capitol Hill its youngest-ever woman, 30-year-old Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik (N.Y.); its first black female Republican, Rep.-elect Mia Love (Utah); and the first female Republican senators from two states, Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa), who is also the first female combat veteran to be elected to the chamber.

{mosads}“These were strong female candidates that had to get through tough primaries, even before the general election,” a representative for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) told The Hill. “They had great backgrounds and could go tell voters what they planned to do. They were all very impressive.”

While Republicans are a long way from matching Democrats woman-for-woman on Capitol Hill, their symbolic gains have them hopeful that they’re on the right track. They say the quality of their female candidates will pay dividends as they move into leadership positions and inspire more conservative women to run for office.

“We’ve certainly got a long way to go, but we’ve made good strides, and Republicans have added some solid members to their ranks of women to Congress,” said Katie Packer Gage, the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012. “I think by and large the folks on our side of the aisle feel good about some of these additions, but still feel there’s a lot of work to be done to provide more opportunities for women in the party.”

Meanwhile, Democrats, who had high hopes that 2014 would be a banner year for their female candidates, suffered heavy losses across the board.

The 2014 cycle marked the first time in history that two incumbent female senators lost, according to an analysis by Smart Politics. Both were Democrats: Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) dropped the Democratic women in the Senate from 16 to 14.

In addition, 2014 was supposed to be the Year of the Governor for Democrats, but the party lost some high-profile races, most notably in Texas and Wisconsin, and ended the cycle with two new female governors, compared to the GOP’s three.

“It was a tough year for Democrats, no question about it,” said one Democrat aligned with a women’s group. “I don’t know there was ever the expectation that this would be year of the woman. … In some cases we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had good women candidates going toe to toe against Republicans and making them work hard for reelection.”

Women make up a majority of the U.S. population and electorate. While analysts note they don’t just vote knee-jerk for other women, the dearth of elected women in the GOP has helped fuel the perception that the party isn’t inclusive.

Following the 2012 election cycle, when President Obama beat Mitt Romney (R) by double digits among female voters, Republicans made it a focus to recruit more female candidates.

The NRCC launched the Growing Republican Opportunities for Women initiative to recruit and elect female candidates, and outside groups with similar goals sprang up. Gage launched a consulting firm called Burning Glass with the aim of improving GOP messaging to female voters, and numerous PACs have begun funneling money to female candidates within the GOP.

Still, there is considerable work left for GOP women to reach parity with GOP men or  Democratic women in Congress.

In the 113th Congress, 19 Republican women are in the House, and in 2015, there will be 22 as the GOP will hold its largest majority in decades. In the Senate, Republican women increased their ranks from four to six, but that’s only one-ninth of the Senate Republican caucus.

Democratic women will still hold a 3-to-1 advantage over the GOP in the House, and more than a 2-to-1 advantage in the Senate. Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, called the GOP’s traction with female candidates in 2014 a “mixed bag.”

“Looking at a year when the Republican Party had such a wave election, this could’ve been a chance for Republican women to make significant gains as a portion of their caucus,” she said. “I look at this past year as a missed opportunity for women to make gains in terms of increasing their share in the party.”

But Marjorie Dannenfesler, president of Susan B. Anthony List, which seeks to elect lawmakers who oppose abortion rights, argued the “raw numbers” don’t tell the full story. She said conservative groups like hers are focused more on quality than quantity, and are looking to put forth “the type of candidate that resonates with the national trend that’s becoming more pro-life and more conservative.”

Still, Democrats have structural advantages over Republicans in electing women to Congress. The GOP actually had more women file to run for office than Democrats did in 2014, but many of them fell to male candidates in the primaries.

“It seems we need to do some things to provide support for women to help them get through primaries,” Gage said. “Democrats have done a good job of creating institutions within the party to specifically focus on women candidates.”

Indeed, Democratic women have a strong ally in the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List, which not only recruits women and supports them financially, but helps train them for the campaign trail’s rigors. 

In addition, with more women already on Capitol Hill, Democrats have promoted more to positions of leadership. That can start a snowball effect, as those women provide support to female candidates and encourage others to run.

“You don’t have a Nancy Pelosi or a Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the right,” Walsh said. “It really makes a difference when those women are in those positions, because they can recruit better and direct resources to candidates. It’s not just about the pure numbers of those elected, it’s what they do when they’re in Washington and whether there are opportunities for them in leadership positions.”

Republicans believe this crop of women will one day push for those leadership positions. In the interim, all eyes are on 2016.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is actively exploring a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and the GOP has a handful of women that strategists believe would be strong picks for vice president, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.). 

That could help counterbalance the potential Democratic nomination of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, far and away the front-runner, and the would-be first female White House nominee.

“I’d love to see one of these [Republican] women step up and be our vice president,” Gage said. “Seeing more women engaging at that level of the process will go a long way to convincing younger women to follow their lead.”

Tags Hillary Clinton Kay Hagan Kelly Ayotte Mary Landrieu Shelley Moore Capito
See all Hill.TV See all Video