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Elise Stefanik Wants to Play in Primaries to Help Republican Women

NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer thinks playing in primaries is a “mistake”

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik is stepping back from her role at the NRCC. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik is stepping back from her role at the NRCC. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik recruited more than 100 women as the first female head of recruitment at the National Republican Congressional Committee. But only one of them prevailed, with many failing to make it through their primaries.

So Stefanik is stepping back from the NRCC to be involved where she thinks it matters.

“I want to play in primaries, and I want to play big in primaries,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

She plans to refocus and expand her leadership PAC to support women and what she called “nontraditional candidates.”

“I think it’s really important as a woman who faced a very competitive primary in 2014, we need to support those women earlier and learn the lessons of how effective the other side was in getting women through these competitive primaries,” she said.

Democrats will have 89 women in the House next year, including 35 female freshmen. House Republicans, in contrast, have dropped from 23 women to 13. 

Stefanik won her 2014 GOP primary by 22 points, defeating the party nominee from the previous two cycles who had spent millions on his races. She had allies in Reps. Diane Black of Tennessee and Ann Wagner of Missouri, who cut an early check for her. She also benefited from millions in outside spending. 

In thinking about how the party can help other GOP women, Stefanik cited EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. (She spelled out the group’s acronym — “Early Money Is Like Yeast” — to make her point.) Across the aisle, she sees Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s work with veteran candidates as a model for how she can tap her own network.

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Sticking to the program

There’s a reason Stefanik has to go outside the NRCC to do this.

Unlike their Democratic counterpart, the House GOP campaign committee does not publicly play in primaries. Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the newly elected NRCC chairman, isn’t interested in changing that policy.

“If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right,” Emmer said in a Friday interview at the NRCC. “But I think that’s a mistake.”

“It shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion — and then we’re going to play in the primary,” he added. 

The NRCC will have a “women’s program” to help identify female candidates and help them through the process. But Emmer fears meddling in primaries comes across as too Washington-driven.

“You might be able to get somebody elected by throwing a lot of money at a primary and doing all that the first time, but you’re not going to sustain yourself,” he said. “More often than not, voters have to take ownership in the candidate.”

He wants his regional political teams to go beyond just talking to the local GOP when they’re looking for new candidates. And then he wants House GOP leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise and himself to meet prospective candidates in their districts, rather than having consultants fly them up to Washington. 

“You really have to get in the district,” Emmer said. “So if Elise does that — actually going out and sitting down with these people, which she’s more than capable of — I think maybe then it’ll have success. … But I think she’ll find out — again, I only say this from my life experience — I think she’ll find out, you won’t have to worry about the primary.”

The ones that got away

Women have had to worry about primaries, especially when they haven’t come from traditional political backgrounds. 

Stefanik was quick to mention Tennessee’s Ashley Nickloes as a missed opportunity. A lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard, Nickloes was the only woman in a seven-way primary for the open 2nd District, a safe Republican seat. But she got a late start because she was deployed to the Middle East.

A political unknown, she benefited from financial support from Stefanik and other female members, as well as from a six-figure TV buy from the campaign arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership. Just before the August primary, the Knoxville News Sentinel endorsed her, writing, “Nickloes has defined service much differently in her life than have her leading opponents.” She came in third, far behind Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who’d faced negative headlines for ethics problems, and easily won the general election.

“She was an amazing candidate and really would have benefited from significant support earlier,” Stefanik said of Nickloes. 

Sarah Chamberlain, the CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, agrees.

“That will never, never happen again,” she said in a phone interview last week. “I could have won that race for her.” Chamberlain noted that she’d been focused on the GOP primary in New York’s 11th District between Rep. Dan Donovan and former Rep. Michael G. Grimm.

Stefanik also pointed to Minnesota state Sen. Carla Nelson as an example of a viable Republican woman who didn’t make it through her primary. Nelson had the financial support of Stefanik and several other female lawmakers, as well as the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. Emmer, fellow Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen and other male lawmakers backed four-time candidate Jim Hagedorn, whose controversial comments about women and veterans troubled some operatives. But Hagedorn won the 1st District primary and the general election.

Asked about his support for Hagedorn last week, Emmer said Nelson took too long to get into the race.

A ‘broken record’

When Stefanik confronted leadership candidates at a conference meeting last month about their plans to help elect more women, she didn’t like what she heard. 

“I was struck that I really didn’t get an answer,” she told The Washington Post

She believes the number of Republican women in the House is at a crisis level, but isn’t sure if her male colleagues see it in those terms. She promises to be a “broken record” reminding them the conference needs to reflects America’s diversity. 

She won’t be alone. Stefanik pointed to Winning for Women, a new group in 2018 that made a small, last-minute digital investment in the primary in West Virginia’s 3rd District for Carol Miller, the only new Republican woman joining the House next year. Stefanik also praised PricewatershouseCoopers PAC for contributing to the leadership PACs of incumbent women.

Chamberlain is gearing up for Main Street’s PAC and super PAC to become more involved in 2020, and says the men in the coalition, which calls itself “the governing wing” of the GOP, are supportive.

“I just have to point out we need another woman,” she said. “If you tell them, they’re all about it.”

Chamberlain knows a thing or two about the one demographic Stefanik is concerned about — suburban women.

“I am a suburban mom,” Chamberlain said. She has a network of 15 female friends, none of whom are in politics, whom she uses as her informal focus group.

Republicans have traditionally lacked an analogous organization to EMILY’s List, in part, because they don’t have a similarly unifying litmus test that energizes the grassroots and donors. Except for the anti-abortion Susan. B. Anthony List, which has also backed men in primaries, most GOP women’s groups steer clear of social issues. For Republican groups in general, ideology has often been a more salient factor than gender.

But Stefanik, a member of the moderate Tuesday Group, is prioritizing female representation over ideology.

“It’s important to have women in the Freedom Caucus, the Republican Study Group, and the Tuesday Group,” she said.

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