Republicans have trouble electing women. And for at least one afternoon in Washington, everyone recognized that problem.
House GOP leadership, consultants, members and former candidates all showed up Thursday to a five-hour confab just off Capitol Hill to help New York Rep. Elise Stefanik launch her rebranded leadership PAC, which will be dedicated to helping women in primaries.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who presides over a conference with just 13 women, admitted off the bat that the biggest challenge to increasing the ranks of GOP women has been in primaries.
As the first female recruitment chair for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Stefanik recruited more than 100 women in the 2018 cycle. Only one of them — West Virginia’s Carol Miller — made it to the 116th Congress.
“We have to continue what you started,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer told Stefanik at the day’s opening panel. “We’re going to align with you,” he added, “to the extent we can.”
It was just over a month ago that Emmer called Stefanik’s efforts to get involved in primaries a “mistake.” The NRCC does not play in primaries. Stefanik, who had already stepped back from her NRCC leadership role, fired back on Twitter, saying she wasn’t asking for permission.
If the 2020 cycle began with overt tension between some of the greying white men in GOP leadership and Stefanik, Thursday’s event was more unifying.
“I think they understand it now,” the congresswoman told reporters after the event.
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In just two weeks, Stefanik’s E-PAC has raised $250,000. Lawmaker checks have come in from McCarthy, Emmer, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Chief Deputy Whip Drew Ferguson of Georgia, and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Fred Upton of Michigan, Ann Wagner of Missouri, Greg Walden of Oregon, Susan W. Brooks and Jackie Walorski of Indiana, Martha Roby of Alabama, and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.
Women have already approached the NRCC about running, new executive director Parker Poling said, and the committee has referred those women to Stefanik. Emmer name-dropped Iowa state Rep. Ashley Hinson, who’s interested in challenging freshman Democrat Abby Finkenauer in the 1st District next year.
Stefanik, who won her third term last fall, believes the party’s problem with women has been long-standing.
“This has been a problem that predates President Trump, and it is going to be a problem post-Trump,” she said, reminding reporters that Mitt Romney — on whose campaign she worked — lost single professional women during the 2012 presidential campaign by double digits.
In addition to early primary money that will come from PAC checks and bundling, Stefanik wants to mentor female candidates and help them with earned media.
This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to create a group that provides the kind of support EMILY’s List offers Democratic women. But many of them haven’t been able to put serious money behind GOP female candidates.
Stefanik wants to start earlier and in a more organized way, with an official and well-publicized slate of candidates who will be earning the PAC’s backing before primaries.
It’s too early to tell whether Stefanik will have more long-term success. But there’s widespread optimism that she’s trying.
“We gotta make some bad bets,” GOP consultant Cam Savage said. He’s been outspoken about the party needing to take risks on candidates to fix its diversity crisis. If candidates knew there was an organization ready to back them, it’d be easier to pitch them on running, he said.
The numbers are daunting. While Democrats now have 89 women in the House, the number of their Republican counterparts in the chamber fell from 23 to just 13 after the November midterms.
“It’s sort of like alcoholism,” said GOP fundraiser Annie Dickerson, who moderated the day’s final panel. “You need to lay on the street and not know you were there for three days before you know you have a problem.”