Republican candidates want to do better with women voters. The people running their campaigns might make that more difficult.
The position of campaign manager is the top job in any run for office, the person who -- besides the candidate -- is responsible for all the campaigns' activities. Yet a National Journal survey of the key Senate races of 2014 found that only two out of 33 GOP campaigns had female campaign managers. In states expected to feature the most competitive general-election races, the disparity is even worse: Republicans have zero women running campaigns.
Campaign managers aren't the end-all, do-all, be-all of campaigns – consultants and other advisers often play a bigger role in crafting a candidate's message and agenda. But the paucity of women in the top spot has raised fears the party is still ill-equipped to reach women in 2014. Among some female Republican operatives, the frustration is palpable.
"What is disturbing to me is there are not enough senior-level women across the board," said Katie Packer Gage, a former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney who last year established a consulting firm to help Republican candidates talk to female voters. "If you don't have a person in that spot, then you need to make sure you have that role in your consulting firm, or making your ads. You have to have that voice and it's not enough to have the candidate's spouse playing that role."
"You need to have strong women that can advocate for a different way of looking at things," she added. "I feel like that is missing."
GOP officials strongly disagree, contending that women hold a plethora of critical posts on important campaigns. They argue that Democratic staffers are overwhelmingly male, pointing specifically to a lack of women in leadership jobs in President Obama's White House and his re-election campaign. (Republican officials did not draw a comparison with staff on Democratic Senate campaigns.)
"If you look at any subjects through a narrow enough lens, Democrats can come to any conclusion they want," said Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It's utterly false to say that any campaign manager, male or female, has universal control of messaging on any campaign. There are candidates, pollsters, and spouses. To discount these vital female members is just offensive."
But in the battle for the Senate majority, only two GOP campaigns have women in charge, and one of them is a tea party insurgent running against a sitting Republican senator backed by the NRSC. In Mississippi, Melanie Sojourner runs state Sen. Chris McDaniel's insurgent effort against Sen. Thad Cochran, while in Tennessee, Alice Rolli heads up Lamar Alexander's re-election campaign. Neither will face a viable Democratic opponent in the fall.
By contrast, more than a third of the Democratic campaigns in key Senate races are led by female campaign managers – five out of 13 campaigns surveyed by National Journal. And all five are positioned in states likely to feature a marquee battle in the fall: Natalie Tennant's race in West Virginia, Sen. Mark Begich's in Alaska, John Walsh's in Montana, Rep. Bruce Braley's in Iowa, and Gary Peters in Michigan.
It's in general elections, where their candidates face off against Democrats that Republicans most struggle to connect with female voters. Led by Democratic accusations the GOP was waging a "war on women," Republicans suffered a huge gender gap in recent elections: In 2012, President Obama won 55 percent of the female vote against Romney.
Voters won't care if campaigns don't have female staffers. But GOP strategists worry campaigns that make major decisions – like the crafting of TV advertisements – without the guidance of female operatives risk ham-handed messages that can repel the very voters they're trying to attract.
For a party whose own recent history is replete with remarks perceived as insensitive to women, it's an anxiety felt acutely. The most recent example came last week when former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talked about women's "libidos." He was trying to suggest Democrats believe women are "helpless" and want to make them dependent on the government for birth control, but whatever substantive point intended was lost in the attention garnered by the words he chose.
"It's really important to have a lot of voices at the table, especially when women make up a majority of voters," said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster working with Minnesota Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden.
Other female consultants are more caustic in their assessment of the party and its campaign management culture. Kim Alfano, a Republican strategist who has worked with former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, blamed a frat-boy culture at the NRSC and other top GOP firms for alienating women. She called the last Senate campaign she worked on, Dick Lugar's losing effort in a 2012 primary, "the worst experience of my life."
"The senatorial committee has been notoriously hackish," she said. "They're all 30-something, maybe married but maybe un-married guys. And they basically want to roll into town, kill your opponent for you, and roll out of town. And it hasn't been a good model for them."
The NRSC fired back at Alfano's accusation. "The NRSC has one clearly defined goal – winning the majority – and no organization will distract us from that mission," said Hougesen. "Although the committee is not familiar with Ms. Alfano, we wish her nothing but the best."
Hougesen said half of the group's staff this cycle are women and that the committee was "proud to have worked with our candidates to secure the best talent available, including many hardworking women."
But some Republican primaries, despite featuring a handful of contenders, don't have a single female campaign manager. In Georgia, for instance, the top five hopefuls – Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, and Phil Gingrey, wealthy business David Perdue, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel – each have a male campaign manager. The same is true in Iowa, where none of the four strongest candidates – businessman Mark Jacobs, state Sen. Joni Ernst, talk radio host Sam Clovis, and ex-U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker – have a female campaign manager.
"If that room where decisions are made is chock full of men making these messaging decisions, that's problematic, even if you have a female media person," said Craig Robinson, former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. "You need a wide perspective when you're talking about those decisions. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Republicans do really struggle talking with women."
There's a perception among Republicans that Democrats simply do a better job recruiting, training, and retaining talented operatives who can serve as campaign managers on big-time Senate races. The data seem to back that up: Progressive political firm New Organizing Institute crunched numbers from Federal Election Commission reports and found that 39.8 percent of Republican staffers on 2012 campaigns were women compared with the 46.4 percent of staff on Democratic campaigns who were women.
Many Republicans don't blame overt sexism for the lack of female representation in GOP campaigns. The problems start well before those decisions are made, when junior-level women aren't cultivated to learn and apply for political- and executive-level positions. One Republican involved in the process, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said many young women are often "shuffled" into the communications and finance departments. Those are important jobs, GOP operatives say, but they often aren't the ones making final decisions.
"In the same way that we are really focused on a building a strong bench of female candidates … that has to happen on the campaign side," said the pollster Soltis Anderson. "Let's make sure we have lots of women in the junior staff rolls but that they are offered an opportunity to move up. So when campaigns go looking for campaign managers, they're getting a pile of resumes."
The Republican campaigns surveyed by National Journal are:
1. Dan Sullivan, Alaska
2. Mead Treadwell, Alaska
3. Tom Cotton, Arkansas
4. Ken Buck, Colorado
5. Jack Kingston, Georgia
6. Phil Gingrey, Georgia
7. Paul Broun, Georgia
8.David Perdue, Georgia
9. Karen Handel, Georgia
10. Mark Jacobs, Iowa
11. Matt Whitaker, Iowa
12. Sam Clovis, Iowa
13. Joni Ernst, Iowa
14. Pat Roberts, Kansas
15. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky
16. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana
17. Terri Lynn Land, Michigan
18. Mike McFadden, Minnesota
19. Julianne Ortman, Minnesota
20. Thad Cochran, Mississippi
21. Chris McDaniel, Mississippi (run by Melanie Sojourner)
22. Steve Daines, Montana
23. Ben Sasse, Nebraska
24. Shane Osborn, Nebraska
25. Thom Tillis, North Carolina
26. Greg Brannon, North Carolina
27. Mark Harris, North Carolina
28. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina
29. Mike Rounds, South Dakota
30. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee (run by Alice Rolli)
31. John Cornyn, Texas
32. Ed Gillespie, Virginia
33. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia
This article appears in the January 27, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.