Can the GOP Fix Its Woman Problem in Time to Fight Clinton?

The tension at the heart of the party -- between its forward-looking technocrats and its headdesk brigades -- was on ripe display at the RNC's Summer Meeting.
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Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

BOSTON -- If you knew nothing else about the Republican Party, two days at the Republican National Committee's Summer Meeting would convince you that it's a party taking its recovery seriously, having bottomed out with embarrassing polling and technological failures in the fall of 2012, along with major deficits in appeal to key demographic groups.

The RNC's new political director, Chris McNulty, was executive director of the Ohio GOP during the critical George W. Bush turnout push there in 2004. In July, the committee brought on Bush's campaign tech whiz, Chuck DeFeo, who built the digital operation that helped beat John Kerry. The RNC courted engineer Andy Barkett of Facebook to be its chief technology officer, enticing him in June to take on a consulting gig building the next-generation digital and data architecture the party hopes to use for everything from city council contests to the 2014 midterms to the 2016 presidential contest.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus used the Summer Meeting, which drew an unusually large press contingent, to launch his Rising Stars program to highlight up and comers from around the country. Among them: the charismatic Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon -- a staunchly conservative former staffer for one-time Rep. J.C. Watts who is also a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the representative from Comanche County -- and Karin Agness, an attorney and former director of academic programs at the American Enterprise Institute who is also the founder of the Network of Enlightened Women. Women and people of color on panels abounded, as did younger faces; a large number of attendees in the ballrooms of the Westin Hotel even had their own hair color, rather than the whites and greys that tend to predominate at high-level GOP events.

I wasn't imagining things in seeing a new generation of Republicans on the rise. A third of the party executives in attendance were new enough to Republican leadership that the August gathering was their first RNC meeting, explained Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski.

* * *

I went there because I was curious what the RNC was going to try to do to erase its deficit with women. Governor Chris Christie's verbal jabs Thursday drew most of the media attention, but a sparsely attended mid-afternoon panel following his luncheon remarks sought to address an issue that could be more vital to the GOP's 2016 prospects than a Christie speech two and a half years before the first primary: the GOP's relationship to women.

If Hillary Clinton is in fact the Democratic nominee -- and every Republican I spoke with here assumes she will be -- gender is going to be to the 2016 election the same kind of substrate conversation as race was in 2008, with the same potential (if Clinton's campaign is well run) to transform turnout and defy expectations about the electorate as did the Obama 2008 campaign. Clinton has the potential to be powerfully mobilizing for women voters, a group that since 1980 has favored Democrats in presidential elections, boosting a historic Democratic advantage to new heights.

"In the last election, Governor Romney won among married women by 11 percentage points, but he lost among single women by a whopping 36 points. With single women making up 40 percent of the voters, well, you can do the math. And the president won women by 11 points," said RNC Co-Chair Sharon Day in her remarks at the panel. "The bottom line is we've got to make the case for more women leaders in this party."

She's taking the issue -- and her role as party co-chair, which has sometimes been more of a figurehead position -- seriously, heading off to New Jersey after the meeting to help train and encourage the 35 women running for state-level offices there, the largest number of women Republicans making such bids in any state in the country. The party has to start somewhere, and one things it's emphasizing is the deficit of Republican women at the start of the pipeline of political leadership.

The question is, is the rest of the party taking the issue as seriously as her? Women at the gathering were not sure. Not sure at all.

"The messaging to women is really bad," said Ann Stone, a pro-choice Republican and one of the founders of the push for the National Women's History Museum. "There've been closed-door sessions where we've talked about how do we get the men to stop saying some of the things they are saying. It's usually out of ignorance. They don't understand what they're saying is highly insulting, which is really sad."

Day opened her remarks with a similar air of disappointment. "I'm really sad, to be honest with you, that there's not more people in this room. Because again as women, we are the majority. And as women, there should be more women in this room. Every one of us should be in this room," she said. "So that's the first thing I want to say, just to make me feel better. This room should be packed. And it's not. "

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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