When Rep. Renee Ellmers talks about what needs to happen to secure the future of the GOP, she tells a story she heard from a staffer who, while packing up the district campaign office after the 2012 elections, stopped to chat with a passer-by.
"The woman said, 'I'm really glad your boss won,'" Ellmers recalled. "'But I'm really glad I got to keep my woman's rights.'
"And that really struck me," the North Carolina Republican continued, "because it told me that there are women in this country, even in my own hometown, who do not think the Republican Party cares about women, that they would lose their women's rights if they had a Republican president. ... And I thought, 'That's really dangerous.'"
Ellmers is one of only 19 women in the House Republican Conference, but as the chairwoman of the burgeoning Republican Women's Policy Committee she is making it her mission to mobilize her colleagues to prove the party is not just filled with "graying, older white men," as she said in a recent interview.
The RWPC relaunched its website last month; it is now frequently updated with clips of media appearances made by female House GOP lawmakers, along with information about the legislative initiatives they undertake.
As the committee gets its footing — it was formed only last year by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., who lost her bid for re-election in 2012 — its online presence will be critical to increasing Republican women’s visibility on and beyond Capitol Hill, Ellmers said.
From there, she explained, the RWPC can move into a broader strategy: to show American women that their concerns are being addressed by Republicans in Washington.
“When you look at the voting population, women were the majority vote,” Ellmers said of the 2012 cycle. “The conservative message is what the American women care about, they are issues we work on every day ... except we didn't do a good job of relaying that message.”
Ellmers acknowledged that there were "certainly different incidents that occurred that affected” the impression that Republicans were not in tune with women’s needs.
Though she didn’t elaborate, the memory of two GOP Senate candidates — in Missouri and Indiana — flaming out in 2012 after making controversial comments about rape and abortion is still fresh to many. The Republican Party as a whole has put a renewed focus on recruiting more female candidates as a result.
But just recently, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona came under fire after he suggested it was rare for a pregnancy to result from rape during a House Judiciary Committee markup of a bill he sponsored that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The incident highlighted how sensitive even male party leaders are to the perception that Republicans are tone-deaf when it comes to women's issues. Leaders decided to amend the bill to include an exception for rape and incest, and they excluded the Arizona Republican from managing the bill's floor debate. Instead, they tapped Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and brought in other Republican women to take turns touting the bill on the floor.
Democrats who opposed the measure saw the move as politically manipulative and slammed the GOP for rounding up its few female lawmakers to speak on the bill’s behalf. They called up women on their side of the aisle, pointedly introducing them as members of the Judiciary Committee. (There are no GOP women on the panel, another criticism House Democrats waged against their counterparts in the majority last week.)
But Ellmers said the presence of Republican women on the House floor, advocating for what they considered to be pro-woman legislation, was exactly the kind of thing that will be helpful in the long term.
“It’s always good when a pro-life female comes forward and takes the lead on some of those issues,” Blackburn said.
Still, the episode highlighted how the RWPC’s struggle to gain relevance is complicated by the male-dominated GOP institution.
That was on Bono Mack’s mind when she formed the RWPC in the months before her defeat, as she told CQ Roll Call recently.
“There was never an effort that I was aware of to come to the women in the House and talk about a bill, how it could be improved,” she said.
Ellmers said that is changing, however. She pointed out that the House GOP conference has a chairwoman in Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a vice chairwoman in Lynn Jenkins of Kansas and a secretary in Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, as well as a freshman representative in Ann Wagner of Missouri.
“I think the culture that has existed within our own party has been led by men, by and large,” Ellmers acknowledged. “Women have not necessarily been putting themselves out there for recognition. ... Now we have a group of women empowering each other, whereas in the past women were more independent agents.”
McMorris Rodgers, another active crusader in the quest to expand the Republican base, agreed with that assessment.
“I think to a certain extent it’s up to us, as women, to make our voices heard,” she said in a separate interview. “It’s a two-way street.”