Women lead GOP fight for Senate

If you want to know whether Republicans are successfully growing their party to include more female candidates, look to Senate primaries over the next few weeks.

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Much has been made of the failure of some women to make it through House GOP primaries, but it’s in the fight for the Senate where women could be most crucial.

Republicans will have female nominees for open seats in West Virginia and Michigan, and female candidates in Georgia, Iowa and Oregon are all on the rise.

“Women are poised to play an important role in some of the top races that could determine control of the Senate,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Landing female recruits won’t mitigate Democrats’ advantage with women, especially because they have their own top-flight female recruits in races in Georgia and Kentucky.

But having their own conservative women atop the ticket will help Republicans push back on the Democrats’ “war on women” attacks.

It’s a role their new recruits are embracing.

“We knew early on that the ‘war on women’ charge was going to be a big part of the Democratic playbook. It’s natural that strong female Republican candidates are well equipped to call out the absurdity of the Democratic men who claim to know and understand women better than actual women,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brad Dayspring. “Good candidates rise to the top, and we have some great women candidates.”

Republicans bidding to take back the Senate majority by adding six seats could have female nominees in as many as five battleground states.

With Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Susan Collins raises .1 million in third quarter Poll: 50 percent of Maine voters disapprove of Susan Collins's job performance MORE (R-Maine) expected to win again, that would bring the number of GOP female Senate nominees to six, tying the party’s record set in 2012.

The difference for Republicans is that their candidates in the last cycle in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico and New York were running in tough states for the party in a presidential year that favored Democrats. Only Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerStatue of Chief Standing Bear to be unveiled in Capitol The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow MORE in Nebraska added to the GOP ranks, winning an open seat previously held by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in the increasingly conservative state.

2014 is shaping up to be a very different map for the GOP.

West Virginia looks like their easiest pickup. Rep. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoGaetz: Some lawmakers reviewed transcript at White House On The Money: Trump takes aim at China in UN address | Consumer confidence fell as trade tensions rose | Senate proposes billion for Trump border wall Senate proposes billion for Trump border wall MORE (R) successfully avoided a serious primary challenge and is the heavy favorite to beat Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) this fall to succeed retiring Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D).

Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) will be the GOP nominee against Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) to succeed retiring Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinRemembering leaders who put country above party Strange bedfellows oppose the filibuster Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home MORE (D-Mich.). Though the state leans Democratic, polls have showed a tight contest between the two. And Land made headlines with an ad mocking Democrats’ line of attacks.

“Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe that I’m waging war on women. Really? Think about that for a moment,” Land says. After a long pause, she adds, “As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters.”

EMILY’s List, the powerful group that supports pro-choice Democratic women, pounced.

“Reminding people that there are women in the GOP may be Republicans’ best option. But that offers nothing new on what matters — the substance of policy. Having a woman deliver the nonmessage will not be good enough,” EMILY’s List communications director Jess McIntosh wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

And this week the Democratic Senate Majority PAC launched an responding to the Republican’s own, saying “Terri Lynn Land has it backwards on women’s health.”

Iowa is looking more and more like a real opportunity for the GOP, especially if state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is the party’s candidate.

The only woman in a crowded field, she raised eyebrows with her first ad touting that she “grew up castrating hogs” on her family’s farm.

Luckily for Republicans, that ad premiered just as likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell Braley2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE, made a disparaging remark toward farmers, giving them new fuel in an already competitive race.

Just this week, Ernst released a new ad showing the grandmother riding a Harley and shooting a copy of ObamaCare. She’s also managed to unite the oft-warring factions of the GOP, drawing endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund and former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska), along with 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

And if she can beat self-funding energy executive Mark Jacobs in the June 3 primary, she’d be the first female GOP Senate nominee in a state that’s never sent a woman to Congress, and the National Guard lieutenant colonel would be the first female combat veteran in the Senate.

In the crowded and still-fluid Georgia race, former Secretary of State Karen Handel has had momentum in the race’s closing weeks, even though she’s struggled in fundraising. She needs to finish in the top two on May 20 to make it to the July 22 runoff.

And she hasn’t been shy to argue out that, if she beats her male challengers, many of whom have had gaffes on abortion, her message would be the best one to contrast against Democrat Michelle Nunn, one of the Democratic Party’s top recruits.

“I’d love to see Michelle Nunn drop the ‘war on women’ card against me,” Handel told me in an interview last month. “Every single one of the other top candidates have already generated a headline that plays right into the hands of Democrats.”

Meanwhile, Oregon has emerged as one of the GOP’s most intriguing opportunities, but only if physician Monica Wehby becomes their nominee on May 20.

Republicans believe the pediatric neurosurgeon’s unique background, combined with her more liberal social views, makes her a risk to take out Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyDemocrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Democratic senator on Trump's 'treason' comments about whistleblower: 'I worry about threats on his or her life' Overnight Energy: Lawmakers show irritation over withheld Interior documents | Republican offers bipartisan carbon tax bill | Scientists booted from EPA panel form new group MORE (D) in a state whose healthcare exchanges have been plagued with problems.

In one ad that garnered national attention, a former patient of Wehby’s details how the surgeon saved her infant daughter after doctors told her she should terminate the pregnancy. The widely praised spot allowed her to introduce herself and soften her views on abortion, which could hurt her in the GOP primary but help in a general election.

Walsh said gender optics alone won’t give Republicans an edge with female voters, but increasing the number of women in the Senate, on either side of the aisle, could ultimately mark a step forward for the chamber and even improve partisanship and gridlock.

The Senate women are known for having a closer relationship than their male counterparts; they gather for monthly potluck dinners. And it was women, led by Collins, who were finally able to help broker a compromise to end last fall’s government shutdown.

“In hammering out compromise, it seems like women are better able to do that. Women were, in large part, responsible for ‘shutting down the shutdown,’ ” said Walsh. “I think that more women on both sides of the aisle would be able to do that.”