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After midterm losses, Republicans ramp up efforts to elect more women to Congress

GOP struggles to recruit women for the House
GOP struggles to recruit women for the House 05:59

The U.S. House has a problem with Republican women. There aren't that many of them.  

Only 13 Republican women were elected to the U.S. House last year — the lowest number since 1995. By contrast, the Democratic Party gained a historic 89 women in the chamber, increasing their numbers by nearly 50%. 

Making matters worse for gender representation, two Republican women are retiring from the House next year: Martha Roby of Alabama and Susan Brooks of Indiana.

But there are a "record amount of women running" in 2020 — over 160 have filed, according to the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Tom Emmer.  

Since suffering so much disappointment in the midterms, more Republican groups focused on electing women have popped up, and some are shifting the traditional strategies. 

So far, though, it's still an uphill battle.

Representative Liz Cheney, who holds the third-highest House leadership post in the Republican Party, has acknowledged that there's room for improvement.

"We need to do better at making sure that we're helping and supporting Republican women as candidates," Cheney said on "Face the Nation" last year.

Getting involved earlier

New York's only female Republican in the House, Elise Stefanik, launched a political action committee, called E-PAC, after the midterms to recruit and support Republican women running for office. E-PAC released its first slate of 2020 endorsements in October. 

Stefanik was the first woman to serve as vice chair for recruitment at the National Republican Congressional Committee. During her tenure, she recruited over 100 candidates to run, but many of them didn't make it through the primaries, and only one won their election. 

The NRCC remains neutral during primaries. E-PAC will not. 

NRCC Chair Tom Emmer has called Stefanik's strategy of getting involved earlier "a mistake." Stefanik doesn't care. "Newsflash, I wasn't asking for permission," she tweeted in response to his comments.

But Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel praised Stefanik for getting involved in primaries. At a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in November, she said early support for female candidates is "something that needs to get stronger." 

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Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks at a rally for President-elect Trump on December 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Rewriting history

Winning for Women, which launched a super PAC after the 2018 midterms to fund and endorse female candidates, is also getting more involved in the primaries.

On Wednesday, the group revealed its first congressional endorsements for 2020. In addition to backing every GOP female incumbent, the group is supporting 13 Republican women seeking to join the House.

"We're proud to endorse such strong, qualified conservative women. Not only will Winning for Women's PAC provide critical hard-dollar support to their campaigns, but it will also activate on their behalf a grassroots army of nearly 700,000 members nationwide," said Winning for Women's executive director, Rebecca Schuller. 

Five of WFW's candidates ran last year and lost, but most of them were close races. New York's Claudia Tenney and Georgia's Karen Handel were defeated by just 1%. Winning for Women hopes its early involvement in primaries will help them cross the finish line first this time.

GOP GA Congressional Candidate Karen Handel Holds Election Night Event
Former Representative Karen Handel of Georgia Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

Fundraising fail

North Carolina's special primary election in July was the first test this year for the Republican women PACs. It didn't end well.

Winning for Women and E-PAC endorsed Dr. Joan Perry in the GOP primary against Dr. Greg Murphy. Winning for Women committed roughly $900,000 to Perry's race. 

Still, Murphy defeated Perry by almost 20 percentage points.

In a statement after the election loss, Winning for Women's executive director said "this race is exactly why we are needed more than ever. We're not stopping here, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to get more women in the House in 2020."

But Winning for Women has only $82,312 on hand, according to the latest FEC filings. E-PAC has almost $275,000

The GOP has to do a better job of fundraising for female candidates, said RNC's McDaniel. The former chair of Michigan's Republican Party said she experienced difficulties "coming from being a stay-at-home mom, not being on the golf course, to suddenly going into boardrooms and asking for significant amounts of money and oftentimes having the door shut in my face." 

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Representative Elise Stefanik asks questions during testimony by Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, and David Hale, under secretary of state for political affairs, before the House Intelligence Committee on November 20, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Erin Schaff / Getty Images

A double-edged sword

Stefanik has recently found a new spotlight on her. President Trump called her a "star" for her procedural complaints against the Democrat leading the impeachment inquiry. 

"A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik!" Mr. Trump tweeted along with a video of her spat with House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.

While her rise could inspire and help more Republican women run for office, it also makes her own seat vulnerable. Within two days after Stefanik's breakout impeachment moment, her Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb, raised over $1 million in donations

"It could entice [conservative] donors to write more and bigger checks to an organization headed by a woman that they believe has been beneficial to Trump's case," said Meghan Miloy, co-founder of GOP Women for Progress, an organization that was formerly known as Republican Women for Hillary. "On the other hand … it could inspire Democrats to run against her, to unseat her, so there will be one less voice echoing White House rhetoric."

Even in Miloy's group, some moderate members were disappointed that Stefanik "gave into the party pressure to fall into line with the other far-right Republicans on the committee." 

"We don't all think alike"

McDaniel doesn't believe there's one simple reason for why her party has had difficulty electing women. 

"I don't like painting women with one broad brush and say, 'this is why they run, or don't.' I don't think that's right. ... We don't all think alike," she said. 

The RNC chairwoman said it's important to have more women in the dialogue but stresses that the party must find the right women to run. 

"I'm not for electing somebody just because of their gender."

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