Senate GOP Women Hope 2018 Will Boost Their Ranks

Republican women are eager for the party to play a more active role recruiting female candidates.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Ayotte
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Dec. 5, 2016, 8 p.m.

With Republicans’ female ranks in the Senate about to dwindle from six to five, some GOP women are calling on their party to do more to increase gender diversity in the 2018 midterms.

Prospects for those races, where Republicans must field a large number of challengers for Democratic-held Senate seats, already include a handful of GOP women who have expressed interest or whose names have been floated for the job.

Rep. Ann Wagner, who led an effort to promote female candidates in the House, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler are both viewed as prime possibilities to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Virginia Republicans are encouraging Rep. Barbara Comstock, among others, to run against Sen. Tim Kaine. Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, who ran for governor in 2016, could also challenge Sen. Joe Donnelly, and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama has been floated as a potential candidate for the special election to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions, if he’s confirmed by the Senate as attorney general.

But some Republican women say the party has yet to nail down a strategy for promoting women as the Democrats have done, pointing to the 2016 elections as a glaring example. The loss of Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who was unseated in her reelection bid by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, means Republicans will hold just five of the next Congress’s 21 female senators. Democrats, who nominated women in more than half their competitive races last cycle, added four women to their caucus, and promoted Sens. Patty Murray and Debbie Stabenow to the No. 3 and 4 leadership spots. Among GOP leadership, the top four spots are all held by men.

“Looking at 2016 results, losing one of our women is not what we wanted to do,” former Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said in an interview with National Journal shortly after Election Day. “There’s a strong support in our conference for women to join our ranks, and I think a focus on qualified women who can run a good race is going to be a focus for us.”

In particular, Republicans say, the party’s reluctance to engage in primaries at the national level in recent years means it hasn’t been aggressively involved in the first step of recruiting more female candidates. While the National Republican Senatorial Committee credits a more hands-on recruitment approach for a host of wins over the past two cycles, Hutchison pointed out that doing so was a relatively new development, and the committee still doesn’t formally endorse candidates until after the primary.

In contrast, Democrats in 2016 made endorsing in primaries a key part of their Senate strategy, and even spent money to choose their candidates in Pennsylvania and Florida—both of whom went on to lose. The party also openly discussed its focus on increasing the number of women, and endorsed female candidates in Illinois, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, and Iowa.

“Electing women doesn’t come easy; you have to be intentional about it,” said Marcy Stech, vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, a Democratic group that helps recruit and fundraise for pro-choice women candidates at all levels of office. “For us oftentimes the race is a primary; a safe Democratic seat is a place where women can stay and build power and build the bench. That’s why in 2014 we added women to the House even when Democrats lost across the board.”

In an interview Monday, Ayotte suggested the NRSC should be more active in recruiting women, and should have the power to endorse them in primaries if necessary.

“The NRSC wants to recruit the best person for the job, and it’s important that they look for capable, talented women who are out there, perhaps already serving at a lower position in government, or who are successful businesspeople, and talk to them and recruit them to run,” said Ayotte.

Asked whether the NRSC would change its endorsement policy to increase diversity, incoming chairman Cory Gardner dodged the question, saying only that he would “continue to find” candidates who represent “the diverse background of Americans.”

Ayotte also pointed to the fundraising challenges of running for Senate, saying the party needs its own version of EMILY’s List. EMILY’s List spent millions for Senate candidates in 2016, including Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, who the group supported in a safe Democratic primary against Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen.

“Women need to understand that there will be a network of people who will help them have the resources they need to succeed in the race,” said Ayotte.

Outside of the committee, GOP strategists are working to build a bench of candidates who they hope will rise to the occasion regardless. Christine Toretti, a Republican National Committeewoman who serves on the board of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said the RSLC had helped elect more than 400 women candidates to local offices over the past six years.

“[The NRSC is] going to pick the best candidate, and if that candidate is a woman, it’d be great. But we try to respect the grassroots and let that process unfold,” said Toretti. Of the 2018 races, she said there was no “structured plan” for electing more women but that the party is already benefiting from a stronger “pipeline” of prospective female candidates, including Wagner, Brooks, and Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

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