POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Republicans have a woman problem, and they know it.
While the party is recruiting female candidates, many say that’s not enough. The next step, operatives suggest, needs to be helping the women through GOP primaries.
Ask Republican congressional candidate Carol Miller how she’s different from her closest primary competition, and her answer is simple.
“Well, I’m a wife, a mother and a grandmother,” she said, before adding that she has legislative experience that former state GOP chairman Conrad Lucas does not. (Miller currently serves as majority whip in the state House.)
Both Miller and Lucas are among a crowded field seeking the Republican nod for the open seat in West Virginia’s 3rd District on Tuesday.
If she wins the seven-way race this week, it won’t be because of a five-figure independent expenditure. But to Republicans who care about increasing female membership in the House, outside spending for a woman in a contested primary is a welcome sign that the party, or least one element of it, is finally putting its money where its mouth is.
Watch: 5 Things to Watch in Tuesday’s Congressional Primaries
“What’s happening in West Virginia is a really good sign. It has to happen,” said GOP consultant Cam Savage, who’s worked with female Republican House candidates.
Still, if Tuesday’s GOP House primaries in West Virginia and Ohio are any indication, helping women through Republican contests remains complicated — much more so than on the left, where EMILY’s List has become a powerhouse in Democratic primaries.
For starters, it’s hard to get all Republican groups behind the same female candidate. And concerns remain about the resources that will be available to help women through open primaries this year when the party has an ever-increasing number of seats to defend.
Taking the next step
Only 16 Republican women in the House are running for re-election this year, a majority of whom are Democratic targets.
“We’re at crisis levels in the House,” Savage said. “If that crisis can’t unify people, then I’m not sure what issue can.”
Helping viable female candidates through primaries, especially in safe GOP districts, seems like an obvious solution.
But it’s easier said than done.
Unlike EMILY’s List, groups that help elect Republican women take pride in not having a unifying litmus test.
That can complicate efforts to unite around candidates. Every group has its own donors and board members, who want to see their own agendas and clients succeed.
Take Tuesday’s open Republican House primaries as an example.
Winning for Women and VIEW PAC have rallied around Miller in West Virginia. She also has the support of the Susan B. Anthony List, which often, but not always, supports anti-abortion women in GOP primaries.
In Ohio’s 12th District, VIEW PAC has backed county prosecutor Carol O’Brien, while Defending Main Street, the super PAC arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership, is spending thousands of dollars for state Sen. Troy Balderson. Winning for Women did not back anyone in the primary.
The special election primary has turned into a proxy war between Balderson, who has the backing of former seat holder Rep. Pat Tiberi, and businesswoman Melanie Leneghan, who’s been endorsed by the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus. That fight underscores the extent to which ideology, not gender, has traditionally been the operating principle in open GOP primaries.
“On both sides of the aisle, crowded primaries often showcase competing agendas,” Chamberlain said.
“To suggest this is a partisan issue does a disservice to the female candidates nationwide who have stepped up to run for higher office and are working towards victory in November,” she added.
The Republican Main Street Partnership has endorsed two female recruits in primaries: South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs in the state’s at-large seat and former Assemblywoman Young Kim, a onetime aide to retiring Rep. Ed Royce, whom she’s seeking to replace in California’s 39th District.
VIEW PAC executive director Julie Conway admitted that O’Brien didn’t have as clear a path to victory in Ohio’s 12th District primary as some of the men with electoral experience.
Her candidacy presented a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Should outside groups only help women who are already on a path to a primary victory or give them extra help to get them there?
“We could have all gotten behind Carol earlier on and helped her,” Conway said.
“We have an opportunity to elect really impressive women, and we kind of trip over ourselves,” she added. “People want the woman to be the favorite before supporting them, instead of helping her get there.”
It’s not that Republicans aren’t recruiting and encouraging women to run.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has its first ever female head of recruitment in New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. And it has named 15 women to various levels of its Young Guns program for strong recruits. Many more GOP women are running for the House who haven’t made it on to the national radar yet.
And that’s why the outcome of Miller’s primary could be important when it comes to motivating outside groups to play for female candidates this year in other open primaries, of which there are still many.
“In the past, we’d have a couple of open seats and that’s where people would want to play,” Conway said. “This cycle, there are so many open seats and we have some really good women in lots of them, so it’s really difficult to get anyone to focus on one or five of them.”
It’s Conway’s job to meet with and vet women running.
“We don’t support all Republican women. We support ones that we think will be good additions,” she said. “If there’s four great guys and just one woman but she’s not viable, I’m going to focus our efforts elsewhere.”
For example, VIEW PAC didn’t endorse state Rep. Christina Hagan, another woman with House Freedom Fund backing, whose fundraising has lagged behind a former NFL player’s in the open primary for Ohio’s 16th District, a safe Republican seat.
But Conway sees opportunities for women in other places, if they get the help they need.
In Minnesota’s open 1st District, GOP alliances are split. The open seat is one of the party’s best pickup opportunities this year, and the NRCC has added both former nominee Jim Hagedorn and state Sen. Carla Nelson to Young Guns. Hagedorn has run for the seat and lost three times but still won the state party’s endorsement last month. Nelson is running in the August primary and has the endorsement of Winning for Women.
Tennessee’s 2nd and Mississippi’s 3rd district are both open safe GOP seats in 2018, so nominating women there would be a surefire way to grow the number of female Republicans in the House.
Mississippi’s newly appointed senator is a woman, but the state has still never elected a woman to Congress. Two women are among the five GOP candidates who have filed with the FEC and raised money.
Republican men have been sparring for months to fill the seat retiring Tennessee Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is leaving behind. The party does have a female candidate here. Ashley Nickloes, a lieutenant colonel with the Tennessee Air National Guard, filed with the FEC in February but she hasn’t been able to raise money because she was deployed overseas.
“I’ve got a couple of women who have recently gotten in late, and if I could get anyone to pay attention to them, I could get them through the crowded field,” Conway said.