The coronavirus pandemic sent candidates scrambling in the spring, trying to figure out how to campaign amid a global health crisis. For Republican women, that meant calling Julie Conway.
“I was having the same conversation 30 times a day,” Conway, the executive director of VIEW PAC, which supports GOP women running for office, said in a recent interview. “It occurred to me: Why don’t I just get them together once a day?”
Then came the Zoom calls — roughly two dozen female Republicans running for Congress, with no staff or consultants, having candid discussions with experts, current and former lawmakers and each other about how to adjust their campaigns. In the spring, those calls occurred every day and eventually became less frequent. But Conway plans to hold similar virtual events in future election cycles.
This kind of virtual gathering was new, but the behind-the-scenes mentoring wasn’t. Though often unseen, mentors have long helped female candidates navigate obstacles their male counterparts may not face. Lawmakers and campaign strategists say this mentorship is vital, and the record number of women in the House is thanks in part to this support.
Republicans, left with just 13 women in the House after the 2018 elections, were especially focused on supporting female candidates this cycle. The next Congress will see at least 28 GOP women in the chamber, a new record.
Now the party faces questions about how to grow that effort and make sure it lasts.
‘Hundreds of hours’
New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, who led the effort to recruit and support Republican women after 2018’s dismal results, said current female lawmakers made an “extraordinary time commitment” that outsiders would not appreciate in mentoring candidates this year, including endless phone calls and texts.
“This is literally hundreds of hours of conversations … probably more than that actually,” Stefanik said. “I think that strongly benefits the recruited candidates who are engaging in those conversations throughout their candidacy.”
A handful of congresswomen-elect who spoke to CQ Roll Call named both Stefanik and Conway as critical mentors. California’s Young Kim, who lost a close race to Democrat Gil Cisneros in 2018 before unseating him this year, said Stefanik pledged early on to support her if she ran again. But Stefanik also set a specific goal for Kim — to raise $250,000 in the first quarter of her campaign.
“I looked at her, I said, ‘Challenge accepted,’” Kim recalled. She raised $401,000.
Personal relationships with mentors can also help bring funds and support to a race, said former Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who serves on the board for VIEW PAC and Winning for Women, another group that supports female Republicans.
“In October, people call and ask you, ‘OK, I want to help. Where can I put some money? What are some good races?’” Comstock said. “When you see a race being well run, and you have that personal relationship with the candidate, then it makes it easier for you to say, ‘Let’s put more money down here.’”
Kim said the level of support was more palpable this year compared to her 2018 race, in part because the party made recruiting and supporting women a higher priority.
That support can help women navigate challenges more specific to female candidates.
South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, a single mom, said she was often asked on the campaign trail how she was going to take care of her kids. Mace, who participated in the regular Zoom calls with VIEW PAC, said having a network of women going through similar experiences was valuable.
“As a woman, you have to work twice as hard to be seen as equal,” she said. “These women know that.”
Mace went on to defeat freshman Democrat Joe Cunningham, becoming the first Republican woman elected to Congress from South Carolina.
Iowa’s Ashley Hinson leaned on her network when her campaign website was found to have plagiarized from various news outlets and the website of her Democratic opponent, Rep. Abby Finkenauer. Hinson said at the time she wasn’t aware the passages were plagiarized, and she shook up her campaign team as a result.
“I’d never faced that kind of a situation before,” Hinson, a former journalist, said in a recent interview. “That’s where that network is so helpful. … They were going to give me sage advice, whether I liked what I was hearing or not.”
A long-term effort?
Conway acknowledged that this network of Republican women is largely informal, while Democrats have a more organized effort concentrated mostly within EMILY’s List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights.
EMILY’s List executive director Emily Cain said the group has personal relationships with candidates that span several years as they climb the political ladder. And they’ve been successful. The next Congress will include at least 89 Democratic women in the House, tying the record set in 2018.
“The challenge has been, ‘How do you sustain it? How do you make it personal and how do you make it deliberate?’” Cain said.
“And that will be the challenge that [Republicans] have to face as well if the party is really serious about actually empowering and adding more women to their ranks,” Cain said.
Republican women believe their efforts are sustainable and don’t necessarily have to be centralized in one organization like EMILY’s List. Conway said the mentoring and networking needs to be “catered” to individual candidates, and others pointed to GOP efforts to recruit and support women that have been underway for years.
“This is not like it just happened the last two years,” California Rep.-elect Michelle Steel said. “We worked on this.”
Stefanik noted that the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports GOP candidates running for state office, has been working to recruit women. Since the group launched its Right Women, Right Now effort in 2012, 665 women have been elected to state office.
Of the nine GOP women who have flipped House seats so far, according to The Associated Press, eight were previously elected to state or local office.
“We are looking to build that long-term,” said Kamilah Prince, RSLC’s director of recruitment and training. “Overall, it’s been very successful. There’s definitely still room to grow.”
The newly elected GOP women, including Hinson and Kim, said they are ready and willing to mentor candidates themselves in 2022, and Hinson said she’s already reaching out to women and encouraging them to run. But for now, their more immediate task is setting up their offices in the Capitol. Mentors can help with that too.
Conway has been helping incoming lawmakers vet staffers, and she’s even helping three of them find places to live in D.C.
“My job isn’t only to get them elected,” Conway said. “It’s to help them be the best member of Congress possible so that next time it’s easier to get them elected.”