Politics

Ivanka's Spotlight Masks Dearth of Female Leaders at the Podium

Some of the GOP's most prominent elected women passed on Cleveland

Ivanka Trump, daughter of presidential candidate Donald Trump, nominates him on behalf of New York State. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

CLEVELAND — Introducing her father Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump stood out as one of the most high-profile women to grace the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena this week. 

She was also the most emphatic in calling for wage equality for women and affordable child care. "I know how hard it is to work while raising a family, and I also know I am far more fortunate than most," said Trump, 34, who is both an executive in her father's company and the mother of three small children. "American families with children need relief."

But her commanding performance underscored the dearth of powerful women at the podium in Cleveland. Only five female elected officials spoke at the four-day event, compared to 20 men. Overall men had at least twice as many speaking roles as women.

Many of the female speakers were Trump employees, several of whom appeared in a video that aired Thursday night, calling him a mentor and a visionary. Others included a golf pro and the first woman to command a space shuttle mission.

And then there was his wife, Melania Trump, whose speech Monday night, and its similarity to first lady Michelle Obama's convention address in 2008, instantly became the story that wouldn't go away. 

Trump's campaign is known for nothing if not unconventionality, so it's unsurprising that fewer of the usual suspects — namely elected officials — have been on stage this convention.

But the gender difference is pronounced, especially at a time when Democrats are preparing to nominate the first woman to head a major-party ticket in history.

“Of course, I always think there ought to be more women on stage," said Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a vocal Trump surrogate who addressed the convention Thursday.

[ Will Republicans Have Fewer Women in the House Next Year? ]

For the GOP, the problem goes beyond convention speakers.

Yeah, well look at the number of women in the Senate and the House," said twice unsuccessful Senate candidate Linda McMahon, a Trump delegate from Connecticut. 

Speaker lineups usually showcase rising stars and diversity within the party. But many of the women who would normally be featured at such an event declined to attend the convention altogether.

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, declined to speak during prime time. She has endorsed Trump and planned to attend, but changed her schedule before the convention began.

Another high-profile face of diversity in the party, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, didn't attend.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a rising star respected for her foreign policy experience, wouldn’t be caught dead in Cleveland this week. She’s fighting a competitive re-election against a popular Democratic governor.

Utah Rep. Mia Love, a rare face of diversity in the party as one of only three African-American Republicans in Congress and who had a plum speaking spot at the 2012 convention, also missed the Cleveland confab. She’s waging a closer-than-expected rematch against the Democrat she defeated two years ago.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, another rising star in the party who had initially been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick, spoke on Monday night, but not many people saw her. The floor emptied out before she took the stage after 11 p.m. 

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin drew a better spot just after 8:30 on Thursday evening. She described how she is the rare second-generation female politician: Her mother was a mayor.

“She taught me that if I worked hard I could be anything, and I took that lesson to heart and eventually became the first female governor of Oklahoma,” Fallin told the delegates.

For outside groups that work to elect women, this year’s challenge is to protect their incumbents and boost their new recruits while still encouraging would-be female candidates (and voters) that there’s a place for them at the Republican table.

That's especially difficult when two out of three women in a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had an unfavorable view of Trump.

“Our purpose remains the same,” said Jenn Higgins, who serves on the board of RightNOW Women PAC and chairs the congressional outreach of the group which helps elect female Republicans to federal office.

In fact, the importance of that mission is even greater this year, she said, because of dwindling numbers of female Republicans in Congress.

North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, the chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee, lost her primary earlier this year, and several female members of the GOP conference are retiring.

That means RightNOW Women PAC is focused on re-electing women like Ayotte, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, while also helping new recruits like California’s Denise Gitsham, who did attend the RNC this week.  

That takes money. The PAC hosted its biggest single fundraiser of the year at a sleek speakeasy in the trendy Cleveland neighborhood of The Flats earlier this week. They had a good turnout, ironically more from male members of Congress than female ones. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Georgia Rep. Tom Price and Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson attended.

Companies and nonprofits, such as She Should Run, held panel discussions about women running for office throughout the week. But there were fewer women-centered events at this convention than in years past, Higgins noted.

VIEW PAC, another group that helps elect GOP women, took a pass on hosting any events at the RNC this year, for example.

When asked about women on the convention stage, many Republican women, including Blackburn, McMahon and North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx all come back to Ivanka's shining star. 

“At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives," Ivanka Trump said. "Women are paid equally.” Working mothers, she added, are “supported, not shut out.”  

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put in place at the time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce

Missy Shorey, who directs Maggie's List, another political action committee that helps elect women to federal office, said she was glad the GOP was "not playing the gender card and screaming out to women."

"But do I hope that we have 10 women speaking next time?" Shorey asked, referring to elected officials.

"Absolutely," she said.

Alex Gangitano contributed to this report.

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