By Maggie Astor, July 9, 2019
NEW HAVEN — For Republican women, 2018 was rock bottom. At least, that’s how Julie Conway, a Republican consultant, described it to students attending the Women’s Campaign School at Yale.
The tally: They sank from 23 representatives in the House to 13, a drop more than twice as sharp as House Republicans’ over all. They account for 31 percent of women in state legislatures, down from 38 percent last year. The Senate is a semi-bright spot, with a record eight Republican women — but Democrats have 17.
“Let’s just get it out there,” Ms. Conway said. “Now we can move on.”
And Republican women are moving on: As of last month, 187 had filed paperwork or expressed interest in running for the House in 2020, said Representative Susan Brooks of Indiana, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s recruitment chairwoman. In the entire 2018 election cycle, 120 ran.
The surge is largely because of how dismal 2018 was — or, more to the point, because of how dismal it wasn’t for women on the other side of the aisle. As their own losses poured in, Republicans watched Democratic women make historic gains and decided to adopt the Democrats’ strategy for themselves.
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At the Yale campaign school last month, they were remarkably open about the source of their inspiration. One after another, the Republican students and speakers praised Democrats for successfully recruiting and training women, and said the Republican Party should follow their lead.
Among the 80 women who gathered in New Haven for the weeklong campaign school — known for alumni like Kirsten Gillibrand and Gabrielle Giffords, and also for being almost sadistically intensive — 12 were Republican. That might not sound like a lot. But never before in the program’s 25-year history had Republicans reached double digits.
Women at the event were confident that 2020 would be better than 2018 — “It can’t be worse,” Jennifer Pierotti Lim, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, said dryly. They were equally clear that saving Republican women from political extinction was a challenge far bigger than one election cycle.
This is because the deeper problem is very simple: Democratic women have a bench. Republican women don’t.
Where the problem came from
Part of the trouble is demographic. There are just more Democratic than Republican women among registered voters, and President Trump, who is less popular among women than among men, has not helped.
Republicans also lag strategically in several areas: in recruiting female candidates, training them, funding them and helping them through primaries.
The phrase “an Emily’s List for the right” has been the rallying cry of many groups, but none have anywhere near the same resources or influence. Emily’s List, built to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, spent more than $100 million in the 2018 cycle alone. The group Ms. Conway leads, Value in Electing Women PAC, by comparison, has spent about $6.5 million over two decades.
Ruth Papazian, 62, a Republican who is challenging Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, said she had seen the funding differences directly. On the left, “they blanket all the races with money because they don’t know who’s going to rise to the top, and they want to make sure that an up-and-coming talent doesn’t die on the vine for lack of money,” she said. “Republicans don’t do that.”
Beyond the lack of resources, many Republican women have chosen to stand back. Some of their reasons, like a tendency to question their own qualifications, are common to women regardless of party.
But others are bound up in conservative principles, like a respect for hierarchy, some of the Republicans at the Yale training said. They said they saw, among many conservative women, a sense of obligation to “wait their turn” and an aversion to emphasizing gender as an asset, as Democratic women have.
“I’m not someone who likes to play identity politics,” said Kara Webster, 37, who is interested in running for office in New Jersey in the future. “But at some point, you do need to play a little bit into that in terms of making sure that our party is reflective of everybody in this country.”
Maria Vismale, 29, who wants to run for office in Henrico County, Va., said she thought many conservative women like her were hesitant to be leaders.
“We take a more submissive approach, and we have a tendency to be afraid to ask and assert ourselves, to be seen as blunt or controversial,” she said.
But younger conservatives may be breaking from that view, both because of changing norms and because of the example that Democrats have set.
“We’ve always been the leaders of the family, of the church, of our local book club as conservative women, but it just hasn’t been on a national or federal scale,” Ms. Vismale said. But in politics, she added, “We’ve been letting men take the lead, and we can’t do that.”
Historically, those who do run have found little support from the national party. It isn’t just that the national Republican leadership doesn’t operate in primaries, where more than half of the Republican women who ran last year lost. There is also a sense among some Republican women that party leaders don’t value them.
“We are so welcomed in the background to help volunteer, to help spread information, but when it comes time for a woman to really step up into the spotlight, I almost feel like it’s crickets,” Elana Doyle, 26, said. “I admire that about the Democrats, how they embrace women and they put them on a pedestal and they say, ‘We need you.’”
Ms. Doyle said she was upset not only by the lack of Republican women in politics, but by the lack of Republican mothers. She plans to run for the Massachusetts Legislature in a few years, when her children — a 3-year-old girl and a 9-month-old boy — are older.
What’s happening now
In the post-midterm reckoning, an array of Republican groups have come together, hoping to provide cumulatively what none of them can alone.
In addition to Ms. Conway’s group, there is Republican Women for Progress, Maggie’s List, She Leads and Winning for Women — and, as of this year, Elevate PAC, which Representative Elise Stefanik of New York created to support Republican women in congressional primaries.
Winning for Women and Elevate PAC, known as E-PAC, are focusing specifically on primaries. Early money — the founding principle of Emily’s List, whose name is short for Early Money Is Like Yeast — is particularly important for women, who often face greater challenges fund-raising than male candidates do. But very few groups on the right provide it.
E-PAC gives early funding to Republican women who meet certain criteria, including raising $250,000 in their first quarter. Ms. Stefanik speaks personally with candidates about budgeting, email lists and other granular aspects of campaigns.
In 2020, “there will be the cavalry coming in to support these very qualified, very talented women pre-primary,” Ms. Stefanik said.
Winning for Women, in addition to funding candidates and TV ads, has been recruiting candidates who don’t have traditional political backgrounds — something Democrats have done to great effect.
“Republican recruiters typically look at chambers of commerce or professional societies, which is great but mostly male-dominated,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for the group. “I think the left does this very well. We’re kind of taking a page out of their playbook, finding women who are not traditional but highly qualified.”
She Should Run, a nonpartisan group, has been hosting events in workplaces, looking for women who are interested in leadership roles in their professional lives and encouraging them to translate those skills to politics. Its chief executive, Erin Loos Cutraro, said she and her colleagues were working hard to bring in more Republican women.
“It’s not that they don’t exist,” Ms. Loos Cutraro said. “It’s that they don’t naturally see themselves in this greater dialogue that’s happening around women running for office.”
She said it usually took a personal phone call from her to convince Republican women to participate in the group’s events.
“We need you at the table,” she said she told them. “And if not you, who?”
Where they’re heading
An early test of all of this organizing will be the Republican primary runoff on Tuesday in North Carolina’s Third Congressional District, where a pediatrician, Joan Perry, is running against State Representative Greg Murphy. Dr. Perry is backed by all 13 Republican women in the House, as well as several of the groups focused on Republican women. Outside groups have poured more than $1 million into the race.
All of this reflects a broader shift among Republican women: They are mobilizing to get themselves elected, because they no longer believe the party will do it.
The future of the Republican Party, not just Republican women, could depend on their success.
Without women, “we’re not going to win elections,” Ms. Perez-Cubas said. “That political reality is very in your face. You can’t miss it anymore.”Correction: July 9, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated how many Republican women are running for the House in 2020, based on information from Representative Susan Brooks. There are 187 who have expressed interest in running, but not all of them have filed paperwork.
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