Campaign

Elise Stefanik seeks to tackle GOP’s women ‘crisis’ ahead of 2020

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is looking to recruit and elect more Republican women to Congress through her leadership political action committee, as the GOP grapples with winning back the suburban, moderate voters who left the party in 2018.

To get there, Stefanik's group, E-PAC, is making strides to reach the high-dollar fundraising and massive network of Democratic women's groups like EMILY's List. That is an area where Republicans have traditionally come up short, but one they are seeking to emulate this cycle.

The three-term congresswoman has attracted the support of top House Republican leaders, after the GOP lost dozens of seats last November.

The relaunch event for her PAC last week was attended by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) in what was a display of strength for her efforts.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) who initially appeared to butt heads with Stefanik on her efforts to attract women candidates to Republican primaries, heaped praise on her and offered to help "to the extent we can."

The NRCC head had stoked backlash previously when calling Stefanik's efforts to promote women in primaries a "mistake" given the NRCC policy to maintain neutrality in primaries. But Emmer told reporters that he's "always been on the same page" as the congresswoman.

Stefanik, who won a competitive primary in 2014 when she first ran for Congress, made clear that E-PAC will work with female candidate "pre-primary," with a main focus on direct contributions to campaigns as well as bundling efforts.

Stefanik said she wants to model her PAC on the NRCC's Young Guns program, which uses metrics to identify top candidates and helps them achieve fundraising goals.

The congresswoman announced that they already surpassed their fundraising goal of $100,000 after raising $250,000 in two weeks.

"We are facing a crisis level of Republican women in Congress," Stefanik said at her E-PAC event. "We do not need to ask for permission to tackle this challenge."

Stefanik's push to make inroads with female candidates comes after Democrats regained the House majority in November with a net gain of 40 seats - many in suburban districts that traditionally backed Republicans and have swung more to the left since President Trump's election.

Democrats were helped by 35 women who won election to the House for the first time - many of them in suburban districts - bringing the total number of women in the Democratic caucus to 89. 

By contrast, the ranks of GOP women in the House dwindled from 23 to 13, with only one new woman elected in November: Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.).

When asked about the president's potential drag on candidates running in swing districts, Stefanik told reporters that waning support among female suburban voters is "a problem that predates President Trump, and it will be a problem post-Trump."

Republicans now plan to go on offense. The NRCC has identified the 31 Democrats in districts won by Trump in 2016 as top targets, and will also look to defend three incumbents who represent seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Many of these districts are in areas where Trump remains unpopular among some college-educated and female voters.

Stefanik wants to make it a priority to recruit women for these swing seats, as well as for solid red seats, especially as more incumbents announce retirements later in the cycle.

"We need to be a big tent when running women in office in red district and swing districts," Stefanik said. "It can't just be in swing districts."

Emmer, the NRCC chairman, will be working alongside Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who was tapped as recruitment chair, to focus on bringing more female candidates into the fold.

At Stefanik's E-PAC event, Emmer also announced that Iowa state Rep. Ashley Hinson, a former TV anchor, has approached the NRCC about running in a top swing seat flipped by Democrats and now held by freshman Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa).

While they acknowledged the need to win back support from suburban and female voters, some Republican leaders have placed the blame for their 2018 midterm losses on a set of factors outside of their control. 

Emmer bemoaned the high-dollar spending by the House Democrats' campaign arm as well as mega-donors like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, even as the NRCC and House Republicans' largest super PAC were some of the biggest spenders last cycle, according to data from OpenSecrets.

Some blamed the loss of the majority in part on factors such as redistricting in Pennsylvania and a large number of incumbent retirements.

And some blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the dwindling numbers of women in their caucus, with Scalise accusing the Democratic leader of spending more money to defeat Republican female candidates.

"We need to do a better job of recruiting to make sure we recruit really good female candidates," Scalise said. But "when female candidates run as Republicans, Nancy Pelosi does not want our party to look diverse."

The GOP are in the midst of conducting a full autopsy on the 2018, with data back from a little more than a dozen states.

Meanwhile, some strategists and pollsters are pushing for similar levels of support for female candidates as EMILY's List does for Democratic women, especially in a year with a presidential election that will soak up a lot of attention.

"They did a good job at finding blank-slate candidates, without a lot to attack, and did a good job of supporting their female candidates," said Parker Poling, the NRCC's executive director. 

"We can learn from that as something to replicate or even leapfrog their method."

In an encouraging sign, Parker said she's already been approached by a number women who want to run and have coordinated meetings for them with Stefanik.

And Ashley O'Connor, who worked on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) reelection campaign last year, said it is incumbent on Republicans to reach out to these suburban voters and push back on the anti-women narrative.

"I think it will be coming again," O'Connor said, adding that it's important that Republicans are "talking to the suburban women, independent women to make sure they understand the Republican Party is not anti-women."

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