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House GOP Women Gamble in Florida Special

Several junior House Republican women are backing the underdog in next week’s primary for Florida’s 13th District in an effort to grow their shrinking ranks.

The special election will serve as a test case for the cadre, which sees the GOP’s aversion to playing in primaries as an impediment to electing women to the House.

Reps. Diane Black of Tennessee, Lynn Jenkins of Kansas and Ann Wagner of Missouri are supporting state Rep. Kathleen Peters for the Republican nod on Jan. 14. She faces lobbyist David Jolly, and the GOP winner will run in a highly competitive special election this spring.

The number of women in the House Republican Conference stands at 19. At least two of those female Republicans have already indicated they won’t return to the House in 2014, which means numbers could get worse — unless they make an effort to help female candidates win primaries.

“I prefer not to be engaged in Republican primaries. They tend to be messy,” Jenkins said in a Dec. 3 interview with CQ Roll Call. “But in reality, I’ve watched a lot of strong conservative women not make it past primaries.”

Peters lags behind Jolly in the primary to succeed the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla. — thanks in part to her eleventh-hour entrance into the race.

Jolly has raised twice as much money as Peters, according to the most recent fundraising reports. And he has used his cash advantage to advertise heavily in the district, according to several Democratic sources who track media buys.

“The one with the most money doesn’t always win,” Jenkins said when asked about Peters’ fundraising deficit.

“I don’t want anyone to think that you can buy an election, because you can’t,” she added. “One of the reasons I’ve stepped up to help her is because I think women have a tougher time raising money in Republican primaries.”

But Peters’ difficulties have only underscored existing criticism from some Republicans who fear the party has not put enough emphasis on recruiting and training female candidates.

“I feel like we scramble at the last minute because we want to say we put a woman on the ticket,” said a female GOP consultant who is not involved in the race. “But I don’t think we do these women any favors by pushing them into situations they would not have arrived at on their own.”

Several House GOP women hope they can make a difference this cycle — starting with the special election. Black, Jenkins and Wagner, along with Reps. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, hosted a December fundraiser for Peters in Washington.

Wagner endorsed Peters soon after she entered the race. All of these Republican women, except Brooks, have contributed to her campaign, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports.

“They have had an effect, especially in Washington circles because of their reputations,” said Peters spokesman Mark Zubaly.

He added that these female members gave his candidate credibility among insiders with whom Jolly, a former Capitol Hill aide, is already established.

But the House GOP women’s effort is nascent at best. They are relatively new to Congress; most are in their first few terms. Wagner, widely identified as the leader of the effort, is a freshman — although also a seasoned strategist and former top official at the Republican National Committee.

By comparison, Democrats boast a mature infrastructure for recruiting and supporting female candidates. The party’s likely special-election nominee, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, raised an astounding $1.1 million for her bid so far.

The combined donations to Peters from the House Republican women amounted to half of what House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., donated to Sink through the Democratic House leader’s political action committee and campaign fund.

And then there is EMILY’s List, a prominent, nearly three-decades-old organization that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. EMILY’s List donated to Sink’s campaign and encouraged its supporters to do the same.

Most notably, however, EMILY’s List and House Democrats cleared the primary for Sink. Party officials even elbowed another female candidate, attorney Jessica Ehrlich, out of the race to give Sink a straight shot at the nod.

Interestingly, many Democratic party leaders privately argue that Sink would fare better against a male GOP nominee, Jolly, in the March 11 special election.

But no matter the outcome of the election, House Republican women remain hopeful they can help more female candidates this cycle.

They name several candidates whom they will likely support in competitive GOP primaries: Air Force veteran Wendy Rogers in Arizona’s 9th District, state Sen. Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District and businesswoman Tricia Pridemore in Georgia’s 11th District.

“We’re not done with our recruiting class but there are certainly three or four that we’ve got high hopes for,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Emily Cahn contributed to this report.

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