Suzanne Terrell discovered just how hard it is for a conservative woman to run for office when she lost a close, high-profile race against Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana in 2002. Terrell got plenty of help from the party establishment, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Bush administration. But she says that beyond incumbency, it was clear that Landrieu had another edge: Strong organization and support from women.
“There’s a dearth of organizations on the conservative side that are dedicated to raising up women in the political process,” Terrell said. “There’s a lack of a structure that women can depend on to help them to get to where they can be effective.”
Enter She-PAC, a new group that aims to pour millions of dollars into the campaigns of conservative women running for state and federal office, and to mobilize the women’s vote in the fall. And it could not come at a better time for the GOP.
If there’s a single visual representation of the perils of the party’s male-female imbalance, it was the picture of the all-male “birth control panel” that was widely circulated recently during the flap over the Obama administration’s controversial contraception rule. The merits of the policy aside, most observers agree that the optics were a public-relations failure for Republicans and one that might have been avoided if more GOP women were roaming the halls of power.
Some of the Republican Party’s most prominent figures—including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire—are women, but their presence belies some dismal statistics. Only 24 Republican women serve in the House and five in the Senate, compared with the Democrats’ 51 female House members and 12 senators. The GOP fares better in the statehouse: Four of the six female governors are Republicans.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Politics at Rutgers University and cofounder of the 2012 Project, a nonpartisan initiative to elect a record number of women to office this year, said there has been an uptick of conservative women harboring political ambitions since Palin’s historic 2008 run. But the infrastructure on the right hasn’t quite caught up, she said. There’s no equivalent yet on the conservative side to EMILY’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates who back abortion rights and in 2010 raised $38.5 million to help them, according to the group’s spokesperson.
She-PAC will function both as a traditional political action committee that gives directly to campaigns and as a super PAC, an outside group that can spend unlimited amounts of money in election efforts so long as it doesn’t directly coordinate with a campaign. The group has ambitions of raising $25 million this year.
“The Republican Party could do more with spotting some of those women that are toiling in the vineyards in various ways and say, ‘Come on! We can help you!’ ” said former Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., who served in Congress from 1987 to 2003. “We may not have the kind of money the others have, and we’re not sure of the support from our own party.”
Among current GOP leaders, recognition is growing that the party risks alienating women if it doesn’t have female representation at the highest levels. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference and the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, said that aggressive recruitment efforts for 2012 are already under way. She also points to progress already made--a record nine Republican women elected to the House in 2010.
The co-chairs of She-PAC, Terrell and Teri Christoph, are veterans when it comes to helping conservative women connect and find resources. Terrell created Project GOPink (“Empowering Republican Women With The Tools To Succeed”) after losing to Landrieu, and Christoph cofounded Smart Girl Politics (“Engage. Educate. Empower.”). Tim Crawford, a former adviser to Palin and treasurer of her political action committee, SarahPAC, will also manage finances for She-PAC.
Christoph and Terrell say that the barriers keeping conservative women out of politics are the same ones that have always kept the number of women in public office in the United States low: the increasingly negative tenor of political campaigns, the pressure and scrutiny on their families, and the lack of mentors and role models.
“It’s tough to be a conservative women running for office. They get really bad treatment from the press and from the other side,” Christoph said. “They think, ‘Why would I put my family through what they put Sarah Palin through?’ ”
Morella said she sees a connection between the squeezing out of moderates in Congress and the scant numbers of Republican women. Morella and fellow GOP moderates like Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins used to be less of an oddity within the party. “The Republican tent has been closing for men as well as women,” Morella said. “The whole concept of conservative—I don’t really know what it means.”
She-PAC has not yet developed its criteria for evaluating candidates. Endorsement decisions will largely depend on the circumstances of each race, Terrell said. She expects “spirited conversations” as the group moves forward. She and Christoph are taking a long view. “I don’t think it’s going to change in one election cycle,” Christoph said. “It’s going to take many, many cycles until we start getting the numbers in balance."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave an inaccurate fundraising figure for EMILY’s List.