GOP Lacks Women Senate Challengers

Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin is the only top female candidate in a major battleground.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, joined by( from left) Sens. Roy Blunt, John Cornyn, John Barrasso, Bill Cassidy, Mitch McConnell, and John Thune, speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Sept. 19 as he pushes a last-ditch effort to uproot former President Obama's health care law.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Sept. 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

The Republican Party recognizes that it has an image problem, but the current crop of Senate candidates won’t change the perception that it’s made up of “old white men.”

That’s how Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly described the state of the GOP months ago when he suggested that Alabama’s governor should consider a woman to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate.

A scan of the nearly three dozen Senate races across the country found state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, as the only major Republican woman running in a top battleground.

“Every year, Republicans try and recruit more women candidates, and there’s more women involved in senior levels on the operative side,” said one national GOP strategist who has worked on Senate races. “But clearly what is being done isn’t working to the degree that it should be working.”

McConnell, in notes revealed last week, urged then-Gov. Robert Bentley to appoint a female senator because “that would be really good for the party,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Instead, Bentley appointed Luther Strange, 64, who now faces former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, 70, in Tuesday’s special-election runoff.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who had four women elected to the Senate last cycle, appear set to field two female candidates in their best offensive opportunities: Rep. Jacky Rosen in Nevada, who has already declared a campaign, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, who is viewed as a likely contender.

The ranks of GOP women in the Senate thinned even more this year, after former Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire lost a close race in November to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Now Republicans account for just five of the chamber’s 21 female senators.

Months after Ayotte left the Senate, a handful of GOP women were floated as potential Senate candidates in 2018 but ultimately opted against it, including Reps. Susan Brooks in Indiana and Martha Roby in Alabama.

In Wisconsin, political neophyte Nicole Schneider, who could have self-funded her campaign, seriously contemplated a bid. More recently, former Trump campaign chair Lena Epstein dropped out of the Senate race in Michigan this month, choosing instead to seek retiring Rep. Dave Trott’s seat.

And then there is Rep. Ann Wagner, who had long been penciled in to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. At the time of her surprising announcement that she wouldn’t run, Wagner already had an impressive $2.7 million war chest.

Republicans offered a range of reasons for their short roster of women, including the party’s pattern of staying out of primaries. Democrats are known to play a more aggressive role in picking sides: Last cycle, for example, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed women candidates in several races, including New Hampshire and Nevada.

This cycle, Rosen already has the backing of the DSCC, even with fellow Democratic Rep. Dina Titus still weighing a bid. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has told Sinema that she has his support if she runs in Arizona, The Hill reported.

For Republican women, “the primary problem is real,” said GOP strategist Joanna Burgos. But she added, “I think often we blame the committees when the committees should not be getting involved in primaries. It’s not their role.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

In Wisconsin, the primary could be a tough slog for Vukmir, who faces what is likely to be an expensive challenge from Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson. Another Republican, wealthy self-funder Eric Hovde, is also mulling a run.

Unlike Democrats, Republicans do not have the equivalent of EMILY’s List, a well-financed group solely focused on electing women. Primary endorsements for the group are a key part of its strategy.

“If you look at the women who are serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, many of them we have gotten through primaries,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said. “If we weren’t there to do it, there would be a man in that seat.”

Still, there is an effort on the GOP side to increase the number of women running for office.

The National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle named its first female head of recruitment, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who has prioritized finding women candidates—a focus, she said, that could lead to more women running for Senate down the line.

“That’s the pipeline oftentimes for Senate candidates,” Stefanik said.

Outside of federal races, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s “Right Women, Right Now” initiative works to elect women at the state level. The group has helped put 388 women in office since its 2012 launch, spokesman Justin Richards said.

Some Republican strategists dispute the idea that the party doesn’t have a deep enough bench of women, pointing to high-profile congresswomen such as Brooks and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. In the past few cycles, former state legislators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Deb Fischer of Nebraska emerged from crowded Senate primaries and won competitive general elections. But, the strategists add, others who gained national attention, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, have proved unelectable in the general election.

“There are thousands of potential candidates out there who Republicans need to recruit and help introduce into political circles,” said one GOP strategist with experience in Senate races. “It’s doable—we just need to do it.”

Filing deadlines are still months away, so more women could join Senate races. In North Dakota, state education board member Kathy Neset and state Treasurer Kelly Schmidt are potential challengers to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, though most of the focus is centered on whether Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer will declare a campaign. Former Republican state Sen. Kelli Ward is running in Arizona, though she is taking on Sen. Jeff Flake in the primary.

Despite GOP strategists’ concern over the issue, they also cautioned that fielding more women for office is just one avenue toward growing the party’s diversity.

“It’d be great if we had more Hispanics, more African-Americans, and more women,” Burgos said. “We probably could do a better job to make our party look different overall.”

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