WASHINGTON — After most women cast their ballots for President Obama in 2012, Republicans have worked overtime to boost their standing among female voters. They launched a major push to recruit female candidates for Congress, opened the first GOP political consulting firm exclusively aimed at winning over women voters, and established an organization that endorses women running for office.
But measured by the number of GOP women running for Congress, the efforts are not yielding many results.
Although there is still time to recruit more, the number of Republican women running for Congress in 2014 is falling well short of 2012: Seventy-four, including 17 incumbents, are running or are expected to run for House seats this year, compared with 108 in 2012, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In the Senate, that figure is 16, the same as it was in 2012.
Ironically, the Republican Party’s dominance in the House presents a big roadblock to progress. The GOP’s success in locking up red-state House seats means it has legions of entrenched white male incumbents — leaving few avenues for women to make inroads.
“Unless you’re a woman wanting to challenge an incumbent, there are fewer opportunities,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, which rates congressional races.
Democratic congresswomen now outpace Republican congresswomen more than 3 to 1 in the House and 4 to 1 in the Senate. At least two female Republicans have signaled they will not seek reelection to the House in 2014, although one of them, Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, is vying for a Senate seat.
The effort to bring more women into the Republican caucus comes after the party’s dismal showing among women voters in 2012, when Obama captured 55 percent of the female vote against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Since 1980, women have voted in higher proportions than men.
In a blistering assessment of the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee highlighted the need to attract more women to the party. The “autopsy” report said the GOP should feature more women as surrogates to speak for the party and increase its number of “influential female voices.”
“Women are less likely to run for office on their own, and we should be encouraging and championing their desire to seek elective office,” it read.
In June, the party heeded that advice and launched Project GROW — short for Growing Republican Opportunities for Women — as a program to recruit, train, and mentor female candidates.
Though Project GROW is intended to help all women running for the House, it is concentrating on 13 female candidates in competitive races, including Martha McSally, who is running in Arizona, and Mia Love, who is running in Utah.
Republican women in Congress are leading the endeavor by meeting with and calling several potential female recruits across the country. Project GROW leaders have also endorsed women running in primaries — a practice that is taboo for the established party committees, which usually sit out primary campaigns.
Outside of the party’s infrastructure, Republicans have launched Burning Glass Consulting, a political strategy firm dedicated to turning more women voters red.
The group, founded last year by three Republican women strategists, aims to help GOP candidates better tailor their messages to women. The team specializes in campaign strategy and voter contact, with its roster of clients including candidates and the national political committees.
“We’re looking at how we articulate the message, the tone we use, and basically just pushing back on the narrative Democrats have that all women care about are reproductive rights,” said Katie Packer Gage, a partner at the firm and the deputy manager of the Romney campaign.
Burning Glass has an office in Alexandria, Va., but the three partners, all alumni of the Romney campaign, work mainly from their homes.
Republicans have also established RightNOW Women PAC, which endorses female candidates and is trying to recruit young women to get involved with the Republican Party. But the GOP’s efforts might be stunted by the views of their own party’s members.
An October ABC-Fusion poll reported that 23 percent of Republicans agreed “it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress,” compared with 60 percent of Democrats surveyed.
Gage said Democrats have a “much more affirmative action philosophy,” preferring to force equality in the candidates they select, rather than examining their actual merits.
“We want to elect qualified people, and if they happen to be women, that’s a bonus,” she said. “It shouldn’t be the primary qualification.”
Republican women have a long way to go. In the House, 19 Republicans, or 8 percent of the GOP’s delegation, are women. By contrast, the 60 Democratic women in the House make up 30 percent of the party’s caucus. In the Senate, just four out of the 45 Republicans serving are women, compared with 16 women out of 55 Democrats.
And this year, Jennifer Lawless, who studies female political representation at American University, said, “The math makes it very difficult for them [Republican women] to make substantial gains. In terms of their overall impact in Congress, it’s going to be quite low.”Kimberly Railey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.