When the House Judiciary Committee passed a late-term abortion ban in June, Republican leaders scrambled to find a female, media-savvy lawmaker to bring the legislation to the floor. Their biggest problem: Not a single Republican woman was represented among the committee's 23 GOP members. They eventually settled on Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who isn't on the Judiciary Committee.
The episode underscored a growing problem that is worrying Republicans: Women are badly underrepresented within their party in the Congress. Only 8 percent of House Republicans are women, and the Senate has only four female Republicans. Of the long list of potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders, not a single woman is on it.
Party leaders want to close the gender gap but worry that it will be difficult with very few female leaders in Congress to handle outreach.
"It's not good enough. It's not. And it's not reflective of the electorate," said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, one of just three Republican women in the freshman class of 2012, who were sworn into the House alongside 17 female Democratic colleagues. "We have a message I think that reaches women, and we need to make sure that we're actively and aggressively telling that story. And there's no better way to do it than being a woman who talks about it."
Wagner argues that women bring an important perspective on some of the biggest issues the country is dealing with, such as family budgets, health care, entitlements, and energy policy—all things women tend to handle in their households. "We're the ones filling the minivan up," she said.
In response to the growing criticism, GOP groups are working to improve outreach to female candidates to run for Congress. In June, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched Project GROW (for Growing Republican Opportunities for Women) to help the party with its messaging to female voters, instruct male candidates and incumbents on how better to connect with women, and to recruit more female candidates to run for Congress.
Led by female members of Congress, including Wagner and Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., Project GROW has called and met with several potential female recruits from all over the country, including business owners, members of the military, state legislators, doctors, and mayors—although Wagner declined to give any of their names. "These are the women that we want to be a part of our team. So we're actively going and talking to them about why it's important for them to step up and run for Congress," Wagner said.
Asked why Democrats have had so much more success in recruiting and electing women than Republicans have, NRCC Executive Director Liesl Hickey said, "I think the party hasn't focused on it like they should have in the past. And I think we are, as a party, focusing more on it than we ever have."
"The No. 1 reason women say they don't run for office is because no one asks them," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has done research on the issue.
Recruiting female candidates takes a lot more than simply reaching out. GOP operatives say the top concern they hear from potential female candidates is that running for office would require them to spend too much time away from their families and communities. Conway said that her research has shown that that's an even bigger concern for Republican women than it is for Democrats. One national Republican operative working to recruit female candidates said women are much more concerned about jumping into congressional contests than men are, and they often take more time to make a final decision. Women are also turned off by the "rough-and-tumble, mean-spirited nature of politics," said Conway, and that's heightened by the media, which can be tough on female candidates. Just look at the coverage of Hillary Rodham Clinton's hairstyle, or Sarah Palin's clothing, in 2008. "Whoever says to a father of five, 'Who's going to watch your kids?' " Conway asked.
But Project GROW has already had a few successes. Although the official campaign apparatus launched in mid-June, the NRCC has been working with Wagner and her colleagues to recruit women for several months. Already, they have brought on Martha McSally, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Ron Barber for the second time in Arizona's 2nd District; Illinois state Rep. Darlene Senger, who is running against Rep. Bill Foster in the state's 11th District; Mia Love, who narrowly lost to vulnerable Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah's 4th District last year; and former Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., who has yet to officially announce a comeback campaign in New York's 18th District, among other top recruits.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who until this year was the only woman serving in the House Republican leadership, said she's "encouraged" by the party's focus on electing more women, arguing that it is important that the party reflect America. "This Congress, there are four women at the leadership table on the Republican side, so I think that's a move in the right direction," she said.
But Republicans still have a long way to go. Despite the Republican Party's best efforts, the gender gap in Congress could grow over the next 20 years, Conway predicted. Women are increasingly realizing that they can make a difference within their own communities, without "being dragged through the mud" in a congressional campaign, she said.
And while outside Democratic groups such as EMILY's List and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's Off the Sidelines PAC are dedicated to recruiting and electing more female candidates, Republican strategists interviewed couldn't name a comparable GOP organization. Organizations such as She-PAC and VIEW PAC help to elect conservative women, but they aren't involved in the recruitment process, while groups such as the NRCC's Woman Up! initiative are more focused on messaging. "There are a lot of groups out there that people don't realize are out there," said one national Republican operative, who contrasted GOP women's groups with ubiquitous Democratic organizations such as EMILY's List. But, the operative added, like the GOP, "they are starting to be more active."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee does not have a specific program aimed at recruiting women—and it doesn't discuss its recruitment process. But spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said that the party will have "several strong Republican women" on the ticket next year. Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is favored to win the seat of retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia. National Republicans also point to former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Joni Ernst in Iowa, both of whom would be the first women to be elected to their states in the Senate, as well as Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, as some of their top female contenders this cycle. Liz Cheney is running in Wyoming, but national Republicans are siding with Sen. Michael Enzi in that contest.
Conway, whose firm worked with Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, during his race against former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack last year, offers a word of caution to those first-time female candidates. Vilsack, she says, overemphasized her gender in the race, making the "miscalculation" that voters would [support] her because she would be the first woman elected to Congress from the Hawkeye State. "They're not looking at whether you carry a pocketbook; they're worried about their own pocketbook," Conway quipped.
Another rookie mistake, Conway said, is focusing too much on "women's issues," if such a thing exists. Democratic women, she said, put too much of an emphasis on abortion, while Republican women have the opportunity to take a broader view. "There are very few Democratic women who can begin or finish a sentence without mentioning a 'woman's right to choose,' " Conway said, noting that she's actually had her researchers go through hours of remarks by Democratic members to find a single woman who failed to mention abortion. They haven't found one yet. "There is a tremendous opening for the 'whole women,' if you will, to step up and run for office as a Republican.... What do you do every week, gals--do you fill up the gas tank or do you have an abortion?" she said.
In Congress, Wagner said she has noticed a difference between working with her male and female colleagues, noting that women are much more willing to listen to their opponents and find solutions.
"We're good listeners, women—we're the ones to ask for directions when we're lost, right?" she said.
In the meantime, Wagner and her fellow female Republicans in the House are asking around in congressional districts, seeking strong PTA members and city councilwomen, and introducing them to consultants and colleagues who could help them get elected to Congress.
"We get together a lot. And I want the room to have to be bigger to accommodate all of us," Wagner said of her female colleagues. "That's what I'm hoping for."
CLARIFICATION: Karen Handel would be the first woman elected to the Senate from Georgia, but not the first senator. Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to the Senate in 1922 and served for a day.