For the House GOP’s public efforts to elect more women to their conference, these past few months yielded mixed results.
Good news arrived on April 26, when state Del. Barbara Comstock and former Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love won GOP nominations for top House races in Virginia and Utah, respectively. But only five days earlier, another top female prospect, Florida Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto lost her special election primary to a self-funding businessman. Her defeat came only a couple months after another high-ranking local female candidate lost her primary in a different special election in Florida.
This mixed record underscores the difficult task ahead for House Republicans, who want to increase the number of women in their ranks — currently just 8 percent of the conference. But the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, does not take sides in primaries, complicating the party’s efforts.
That puts the onus to win in a primary on the individual, female candidate.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to run your own campaign, and we can’t be there on the ground doing it for them,” Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, a member at the center of the House GOP’s efforts to elect more women, said in a phone interview last week. “And that matters.”
Although it’s still early in the cycle, recent GOP primaries show female candidates have little room for error in their races.
A former political consultant, Comstock ran a top-notch campaign, raising a whopping $760,000 in the first quarter to defeat a handful of male primary opponents in northern Virginia. Republicans say her fundraising and political skills make her the best candidate to hold the competitive 10th District in November.
Love, a national GOP star, walloped her GOP opponent with 78 percent of delegate support at Utah’s GOP convention on April 26. This November, she’s expected to coast to Congress as her party’s first black female member.
There are currently 19 women in the House Republican Conference — fewer than last Congress. At least two women will not return after 2014: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is retiring and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia is running for Senate.
As a result, House Republicans kick off this campaign cycle with a net loss of women in their conference.
House Republicans fielded some strong female candidates, but many of them face primaries or competitive races. In addition to Love and Comstock, there’s retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who is challenging Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., in a banner race this fall. Illinois state Rep. Darlene Senger won her primary, but she faces a tougher battle to come to Congress.
In total, there are approximately 10 other Republican women running in crowded primaries for open seats that the party is expected to win in the fall. Another six or so female GOP candidates are in competitive primaries where the winner will face off against a Democratic incumbent.
Wagner and Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee have tried to help some female candidates through these GOP contests, most of which will occur this summer. For the past year, their effort, “Project GROW” has recruited, vetted, groomed, endorsed and fundraised for female candidates.
But Benacquisto’s loss marked Project GROW’s second major setback of the year. The first came in January, when another one of its supported candidates, state Rep. Kathleen Peters, lost to now-Rep. David Jolly in the special election primary for Florida 13th’s District. Wagner, Black and other GOP women backed Peters.
“I want a GOP win first and a GOP woman second. If I can get both, it’s a two-fer,” Wagner said. “I’m willing to play in primaries, but at the end of the day, what I’m providing to these women candidates, [along with] people like Diane Black and many others working through Project GROW, is advice.”
But sometimes candidates need more than advice. They need the right team. Most Washington Republicans engaged in the two Florida special election primaries blamed the losses on the candidates staying loyal to their local teams.
Businessman Curt Clawson, who defeated Benacquisto, spent millions of his own funds on his bid. But he also hired Strategy Group for Media to produce his ads. It’s the same firm that Wagner used for her primary in 2012.
McSally and Love boast the benefit of experience from prior runs for Congress. Both Republicans narrowly lost in 2012 races — but they won credibility within the party. Thanks to early organization in 2013, McSally and Love were able to fend off serious primary challenges. Notably, Love re-vamped her campaign team early last year.
Finally, compared to Republicans, Democrats have a historical advantage when it comes to recruiting female candidates.
The party’s formal efforts trace back to the early 1990s, following Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings before the Senate. The next cycle, 1992, was hailed as “Year of the Woman,” because of the large number of female members elected to Congress.
Some Republican women have said their party had its own cataclysmic gender moment in 2012.
“Last cycle — the Todd Akin moment and the ‘War on Women’ mantra — has brought the need to have an EMILY’s List-type GOP organization to light,” a GOP female operative said.
Since then, a handful of men and women have built new organizations or expanded the efforts of existing ones to help female candidates. In addition to Project GROW, there is a “Women Lead” super PAC, VIEW PAC, the Susan B. Anthony List, Maggie’s List and RightNOW PAC.
But so far, there is no central organization comparable to EMILY’s List for Democrats. The 29-year-old juggernaut, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, has infrastructure so strong it can occasionally create headaches for the official party committees in primaries.
Operatives from both sides agree that a Republican incarnation of EMILY’s List is years away.
“EMILY’s List didn’t happen overnight,” that Republican female operative said. “This isn’t going to happen for us overnight. But the fact that we are starting the process this cycle, versus [the tone of] last cycle, is a step in the right direction.”
Emily Cahn contributed to this report.