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Facing a dwindling number of women in their ranks, House Republicans may be best served by adopting a strategy the party as a whole has shunned for cycles: playing in primaries.
It’s a tricky situation for the House GOP’s campaign arm, which publicly stays out of primaries after the party received flak for taking sides a few cycles ago.
But amid the party’s formal push to have more female members, it’s become increasingly clear that some contenders need extra help and resources in their races. And while the National Republican Congressional Committee insists it will stay on the sidelines, several House GOP women are taking the lead to publicly recruit, endorse and fundraise for female House candidates.
Three months after its launch, the House GOP’s female candidate program — Project GROW — has pinpointed 13 strong female candidates in House races, and NRCC aides say they are recruiting more. But two-thirds of these female candidates face competitive primaries against one or more male candidates, so the NRCC won’t officially back their campaigns.
That’s where the 19 women in the House GOP Conference come into play.
“People like myself and others in our conference are willing to step up ... and work with them individually and not on behalf of the NRCC when necessary,” said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, a leader in Project GROW.
Wagner said the recruitment effort is ongoing, adding there are at least five candidates she is working on recruiting at the moment. She declined to specify their districts.
Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee, has donated to the campaigns of two female candidates so far. One of them is businesswoman Tricia Pridemore, who is running in a crowded primary to replace Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
“Many of the candidates that I have met with are in primaries right now, so it’s a difficult place for the NRCC to speak out on because they do have to let the primary process move forward,” Ellmers said. “However, there are members who are finding candidates and supporting them and helping them with donations to their campaigns.”
Project GROW — Growing Republican Opportunities for Women — provides mentors to candidates, plus offers strategy and polling support, among other things. It launched at the end of June, after the number of women in the House GOP caucus remained stagnant following the 2012 elections.
The program has already identified the following top female House candidates for 2014: retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally and Air Force veteran Wendy Rogers in Arizona, autism activist Elizabeth Emken and state Sen. Mimi Walters in California, Pridemore and state Rep. Donna Sheldon in Georgia, Mariannette Miller Meeks in Iowa, Darlene Senger in Illinois, Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah in Minnesota, former Rep. Nan Hayworth and former Mitt Romney staffer Elise Stefanik in New York, former International Trade Commission Commissioner Charlotte Lane in West Virginia and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love in Utah’s 4th District.
Despite this list, the House GOP still has a long way to go with recruiting strong female candidates before the party will be in a position to significantly increase the number of women in the caucus. There are 62 women in the House Democratic Caucus.
Look no further than the GOP’s stronghold in the Deep South to see the party’s problematic math. There are five open-seat races in Republican districts across Louisiana and Georgia, including a Bayou State special election. Only three of the 20 announced candidates in these five races are women — and two of them are running for the same seat.
The primary math is only slightly less daunting.
In 2012, 109 Republican women ran for House seats across the country. But of those 109 women, more than half never made it past a primary. Of the GOP women who lost in primaries, 80 percent lost to male challengers, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
“If they want to see any kind of substantial gains ... they have no choice,” said Jennifer Lawless, an American University professor who focuses on women in politics, of the GOP playing in primaries. “When you have a competitive field, you have to narrow that down quickly, and one of those best ways to do that is with a party cue.”
But the party is loath to lay a hand on primaries. For that reason, many Republicans cede that adding more women to the congressional ranks will be a long-term recruitment effort that goes beyond 2014.
“The NRCC has taken a strong step in the right direction, setting up a formal program, identifying female Republicans to lead it, but you can’t expect changes overnight,” said a GOP operative who works with the committee. “The best time to start working on recruitment is the day after the election, so while the important work will be done this cycle, the most significant impact will probably not be seen until next cycle.”