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Will Republicans Have Fewer Women in the House Next Year?

Renee Ellmers is third GOP female member not returning in 2017

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, left, has been a a leader in recruiting Republican women to run for the House where North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, second from right, is one of at least three Republican women not returning to the House next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, left, has been a a leader in recruiting Republican women to run for the House where North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, second from right, is one of at least three Republican women not returning to the House next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The defeat of North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers  Tuesday night means that at least three of the 22 Republican women in the House will not be returning next year.   

All three women are outspoken and prominent members of a party that is trying to increase its appeal among women voters nationally.   

Ellmers is chair of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee.  

 Michigan Rep. Candice S. Miller, who’s retiring at the end of this Congress , is the only woman to chair a committee.  

Wyoming Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, also retiring , is the only woman in the House Freedom Caucus .  

Republicans could also lose Rep. Barbara Comstock, whose suburban Virginia seat is a top Democratic target this year — and who faces a female Democratic challenger . Democrats have 62 women in the House.  

Democrats are also challenging GOP Reps. Mia Love  of Utah, and Martha McSally  of Arizona, but knocking them off looks like a taller order right now.  


Ellmers Becomes First GOP Incumbent to Lose


Even losing three members (nearly 14 percent of the women in the GOP conference) is a real hit.   

“Trust me, we realize that and are concerned about it,” Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks said Wednesday. Republicans have a handful of competitive female recruits to help make up that loss — but just a handful.   

“Honestly, we just don’t have that many in the field at this point in time,” said Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, the current finance chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Wagner and Tennessee Rep. Diane Black spearheaded a 2014 effort to recruit more women Republican candidates [

House GOP Women Play in Primaries to Increase Ranks


This year, the party has 44 women running across the country, but few of those districts are competitive.  

Republicans are enthusiastic about Liz Cheney running for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat , businesswoman Darlene Miller running in Minnesota’s 2nd District , Attorney Mary Thomas in Florida’s 2nd District and Rebecca Negron in Florida’s 18th District.   

Negron is the only female candidate who has made it to “Contender”  status, the second highest level of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program for competitive candidates.  

And all of those women still face primaries.  


Why Republicans Have Trouble Electing Women to Congress


Because of the high number of Republican incumbents in the House, the opportunities to pick up more seats are limited. And that doesn’t leave much room for GOP women who want to run.  

“Our record majorities have made it such that it’s just been difficult to have seats that people are willing to run in,” Wagner said. Suffering from a 30-seat deficit in the House, Democrats have many more pick-up opportunities this cycle and many more female recruits. Half  of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s candidates in its “Red to Blue” program are women.   

Democratic women have long benefited from EMILY’s List, which recruits and helps elect female candidates who support abortion rights.  

On the Republican side, the encouragement for more women to run has come from much smaller and more splintered groups like VIEW PAC, Maggie’s List, RightNOW PAC, Women Lead PAC and the Susan B. Anthony List.

The Ellmers example


The Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect anti-abortion women, took the unprecedented step earlier this spring of endorsing Ellmers’ male opponent, Rep. George Holding.  Redistricting placed  Holding and Ellmers in the same district.    

Ellmers is anti-abortion and opposes exceptions for rape or incest. But despite supporting her in the past, the organization and other social conservative groups tore into Ellmers for her “betrayal of pro-lifers.”  


The Rise and (Probable) Fall of Renee Ellmers


Ellmers and Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski led a group of Republican women last year who convinced GOP leadership to pull from the floor  a bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks.   

The original bill, known as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would allow rape survivors to get an abortion more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy only if they had reported the rape to the police.  

“If you remember back to the 2012 election, this is the conversation that started the whole ‘war on women’ issue with ‘legitimate rape,’” Ellmers told CQ Roll Call  in March.   

The final bill still banned abortions after 20 weeks, but it removed the reporting requirement.   

“At the end of the day, it became a better bill protecting life and women,” Brooks said.   

“I think it is unfortunate that it has been mischaracterized against Renee,” she said.  


What the House GOP’s About-Face on Abortion Bill Really Means


The Susan B. Anthony List disagreed.  

“She has her own failed leadership to blame for this loss,” the group’s president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in response to Ellmers’ defeat.  

Ellmers had previously urged her GOP conference to not make anti-abortion bills its first votes of the year, arguing that social issues aren’t a priority for millennial voters.  

That argument — combined with the fact that the abortion bill was pulled on the eve of the annual March for Life rally in Washington — incensed social conservatives.   

But it wasn’t just social conservatives who felt betrayed by Ellmers, who was elected with tea party support in 2010.  

Even before redistricting, the Club for Growth had endorsed her opponent , and Americans for Prosperity made her its first incumbent targeted in a primary.  

At least 10 members of Congress donated to Holding during the pre-primary reporting period. None donated to Ellmers.  

Ellmers alone was vilified over her role in pulling the abortion bill, while other women involved in the effort were not.    

One Republican strategist suggested that outside groups saw in Ellmers, who was already facing a tough primary, an opportunity to prove to donors they could still take out an incumbent.  


RNC Looks to Empower GOP Women to Run


But the success in getting the original abortion bill pulled and replaced, Brooks said, shows the importance of having outspoken GOP women in the House.   

“The positive thing is that regardless of our numbers, if we had been 15 or had been 25 — at time we were 21 — our voices were heard,” Brooks said.  

“Even if we don’t replenish our numbers, the thing about the Republican women is we are very strong voices in our conference,” she said.  

Ellmers, who may have lost for doing what she thought was best for her party’s standing with women, won’t be among them.

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