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GOP Women's Recruitment Effort Adapts for 2016

Ellmers was one of the founders of Project GROW. (File Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Republican women’s recruitment effort is experiencing some growing pains.  

Project GROW (which stands for Growing Republican Opportunities for Women) was launched in 2013 to try to elect more GOP women to Congress. But with the historic Republican majority in the House, the effort has a big challenge to address in its second cycle: limited room to grow.  

“It’s a great project, but I think because we’re looking to the 2016 election, we’re trying to see how we can change it,” said North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, a founder of Project GROW. “We’re just taking in input from members now on how we might be able to improve it. We want it to be a long-term project.”  

In its inaugural cycle, Project GROW saw six new women join the House, including one non-voting delegate. But the 2016 landscape is much different. There are only four competitive open seats this cycle so far. According to the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call race ratings , three of those are rated as Tossups; the other Tilts Republican. In 2014 there were 12 competitive open-seat races, with six districts Favored Republican, two Pure Tossups and four Favored Democratic.  

Republicans will also be defending more seats in 2016 than in 2014. Of the 31 seats currently in play, 23 are controlled by Republicans. In 2014, 42 seats were in play but Republicans held only 14.  

Ellmers is not as involved in Project GROW this cycle and says it’s too early to tell how the program might change. National Republican Congressional Committee Recruitment Chairman Richard Hudson, R-N.C., suggests there will be a merger with the NRCC’s existing Young Guns program, which helps all Republican candidates coordinate their campaigns.  

“The goal now is not to just go find female candidates and throw money at them, but to bring female candidates into the Young Guns program, so that we’re helping them to develop as candidates so they can be more successful,” Hudson said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby in late June.  

“[Project GROW] was just running parallel to Young Guns, and now we want to run it with Young Guns,” he said. “The end goal being we want successful candidates. We want to help these candidates develop.”  

The most immediate need for 2016 is to increase the focus of retaining current female members.  

“We understand that it’s a smaller space that we’re working in,” Ellmers said. “It’s more of an idea that we have to protect the ones that are elected, the ones that we have in office now, and then also, where we see the opportunity to have a woman run, we want to be reaching out to that woman.”  

Of the 22 Republican women currently in the House, two are in potentially vulnerable seats — Reps. Martha McSally of Arizona and Barbara Comstock of Virginia — though both are in Leans Republican districts.  

“All the women in our conference have been trying to be good mentors and just listen and make sure that we’re there for [the newly elected women]," Ellmers said. "But also being with them on the issues of fundraising. Helping them to be doing a good job.”  

Despite the challenges ahead, Project GROW recruiting continues.  

“It's not too early to recruit some of these women who may not even be a candidate in this election cycle, and keep in touch with them so — if there is a seat that becomes vacant or one they’re looking at for the future — that we can cultivate them,” said Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, who is helping lead the GOP’s recruitment effort this cycle.  

“We have a couple of seats that we do have women interested in running, and we’re mentoring them at this point in time,” Black said.  

According to Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, large-scale recruitment of this kind is the only way for the GOP to get more women into office.  

"If they want to increase women’s numbers, they have to be padding the pump and filling the bench, so as soon as there’s an electoral opportunity — even one they did not foresee — they have a female candidate ready to go," Lawless said. "So if there’s a scandal, if there’s a death, if there’s an unexpected retirement, they have a list of potential candidates that includes women that they could say on day one, okay throw your hat into the ring — we’re behind you."  

Freshman Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is more optimistic about the GOP's recruitment potential in 2016.  

“There’s always seats that we can go on offense on and there will be open seats. Campaign cycles are long, I learned that in my campaign. I got in the race against a sitting incumbent, it became an open race when he decided to retire. That happens every single cycle,” said the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.  

“The process is ongoing. The cycle is certainly not settled.”

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