House GOP, with few female incumbents following midterms, finds recruiting candidates no simple matter

By Kristina Peterson WALL STREET JOURNAL March 13, 2019 10:13 a.m. ET

COLUMBIA, S.C.—After an election that left the House with nearly seven timesas many Democratic womenas GOP women, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill vowed to even out those numbers.

But boosting GOP female recruitment for the 2020 election cycle is proving to be an uphill climb, according to lawmakers and GOP officials.

“We are down to 13 Republican women in the House, and that is devastating,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R., Mo.), who this year revived the House Suburban Caucus on the GOP side for the first time in a decade. “We need more women, more diversity—we need a Republican Congress that looks more like America.”

The number of House Republican women fell to 13 after November’s midterm elections—from 21 in the previous session of Congress—compared with a record 89 Democratic women in the chamber.

While it is still early in the 2020 recruitment cycle, more male candidates than female ones have jumped into races. In Pennsylvania, Republican conferees this month chose state Rep. Fred Keller as the nominee in the May 21 special election to succeed U.S. Rep. Tom Marino (R., Pa.), who resigned in January. Of the 14 GOP candidates to receive nominations, three were women, according to the state party spokesman.

The three female candidates were an encouraging sign in a field that also included minorities, young people and veterans, said Jason Gottesman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania GOP. “That said, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania has long recognized the need to have a well-qualified farm team of experienced female candidates,” he said, adding programs are in place to help train women interested in politics.

In the race for the North Carolina seat opened up by thedeath of GOP Rep. Walter Jones, three of the 17 GOP candidates to file paperwork are women. Meanwhile, one man and one woman have filed paperwork to run as Republicans for the contested Charlotte-based seat rocked by evidence ofballot-tampering.The filing period began Monday and other candidates of both genders are considered contenders in the race as well.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said Republicans were focused on boosting the party’s diversity in recruiting candidates for next year.

“The number of women, the ability to focus on looking like America…in a few short months you will see that that is paying off,” Mr. McCarthy said Friday. He declined to give any examples.

Republicans also acknowledge they have yet to build an organization comparable to Emily’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. In the 2018 cycle, Emily’s List said it raised $110 million and helped elect 34 Democratic women to the House. Since the 2016 election, more than 40,000 women have contacted the group about running for state, local and national offices.

Making Republicans’ task more difficult is that they begin the election cycle with fewer incumbents, who start with more name recognition and often a better network for raising money.

A cluster of GOP women operatives and elected officials are responding by scouting women willing to run and making sure they have the necessary money and infrastructure. In the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) has taken the lead, launching a political-action committee, called E-PAC, aimed at supporting more GOP women in primaries. Republican women have struggled to clear primaries in years past. She said her work is aimed at making sure recruits have a strategy and communications plan, and staff to help them get through the primaries.

Outside Capitol Hill, Sarah Chamberlain has made recruiting GOP women a priority for the coming election cycle. She is president of Defending Main Street, a super PAC affiliated with the Republican Main Street Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based group that champions pragmatic Republicans.

The group’s effort spotlights another element of the Republican strategy: winning back female voters. In the November elections, women made up 51% of the electorate nationwide and favored Democratic candidates over Republicans by 56% to 41%, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters before and during Election Day.

Last week in Columbia, Ms. Chamberlain held the first of nine events scheduled for this year aimed at suburban women. At the nonpartisan discussions, she asks women to rank their policy priorities, then relays the information to Republicans in Washington. Among the findings so far: Health-care consistently ranks as a priority, and voters say they want more diversity in their candidates.

Heather Sherwin, a Columbia resident who works in the nonprofit sector, said she watched the inauguration of Mr. Trump, flanked by the GOP-controlled Congress, in January 2017, and saw a “sea of white men.”

“I thought to myself, ‘What the hell? That’s not the world I live in,’” she said. Although she considers herself a Democrat, Ms. Sherwin has written checks to female candidates from both parties. “I just want women to be in office,” she said.

Some GOP women worry fewer female candidates will want to run in 2020, when President Trump leads the party’s ticket. A gender gap in hisapproval ratingillustrates the difficulty the GOP faces in rallying women voters. He has the support of his party—88% of Republicans approve of his job performance, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. But among women, 38% approve and 61% disapprove, compared with 54% approval and 42% disapproval among men.

Democratic officials said they were confident their eventual nominee would help their cause with women when compared to Mr. Trump. “I don’t think he’s exactly known for his positive views on women’s rights,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.), who is leading House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Mary Alexander, a 49-year-old university assistant provost, said that as she gets older, she pays more attention to the gender of political candidates.

“I don’t feel represented in the White House or Congress,” said Ms. Alexander, a Lexington, S.C., resident who used to vote for Republicans but recently switched to supporting Democrats.

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