When the House Judiciary Committee passed a late-term abortion ban in June, Republican leaders scrambled to find a female, media-savvy lawmaker to bring the legislation to the floor. Their biggest problem: Not a single Republican woman was represented among the committee's 23 Republican members. They eventually settled on Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who isn't on the Judiciary Committee.
The episode underscored a growing problem that is worrying Republicans: Women are badly underrepresented within their party in the Congress. Only 8 percent of House Republicans are women, and there are only four female Republican senators. Of the long list of potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders, there's not a single woman.
Party leaders want to close the gender gap, but worry that it will be difficult with very few female leaders in Congress to handle outreach.
"It's not good enough. It's not. And it's not reflective of the electorate," said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, one of just three Republican women in the freshman class of 2012, who were sworn into the House alongside 17 female Democratic colleagues. "We have a message I think that reaches women and we need to make sure that we're actively and aggressively telling that story. And there's no better way to do it than being a woman who talks about it."
Wagner argues that women bring an important perspective on some of the biggest issues the country is currently dealing with, such as family budgets, health care, entitlements, and energy policy -- all things women tend to handle in their households. "We're the ones filling the minivan up," she said.
In response to the growing criticism, Republican groups are working to improve outreach to female candidates to run for Congress. In June, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched Project GROW (for "Growing Republican Opportunities for Women") to help the party with its messaging to female voters, instruct male candidates and incumbents on how better to connect with women, and to recruit more female candidates to run for Congress.
Led by female members of Congress, including Wagner and Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Project GROW has called and met with several potential female recruits from all over the country, including business owners, members of the military, state legislators, doctors, and mayors -- though Wagner declined to give any of their names. "These are the women that we want to be a part of our team. So we're actively going and talking to them about why it's important for them to step up and run for Congress," Wagner said.
Asked why Democrats have had so much more success in recruiting and electing women than Republicans have, NRCC Executive Director Liesl Hickey said, "I think the party hasn't focused on it like they should have in the past. And I think we are, as a party, focusing more on it than we ever have."
"The No. 1 reason women say they don't run for office is because no one asks them," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has done research on the issue.
Recruiting female candidates takes a lot more than simply reaching out. Republican operatives say the top concern they hear from potential female candidates is that running for office would require them to spend too much time away from their families and communities. Conway said that her research has shown that that's an even bigger concern for Republican women than it is for Democrats. One national Republican operative working to recruit female candidates said that women are much more concerned about jumping into congressional contests than men are, and often take more time to make a final decision. Women are also turned off by the "rough-and-tumble, mean-spirited nature of politics," said Conway, and that's heightened by the media, who can be tough on female candidates. Just look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton's hairstyle, or Sarah Palin's clothing in 2008. "Whoever says to a father of five, 'Who's going to watch your kids?' " Conway asked.
But Project GROW has already had a few successes. Though the official campaign apparatus launched in mid-June, the NRCC has been working with Wagner and her colleagues to recruit women for several months. Already, they have brought on Martha McSally, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Ron Barber for the second time in Arizona's 2nd District; Illinois state Rep. Darlene Senger, who is running against Rep. Bill Foster in the state's 11th District; Mia Love, who narrowly lost to vulnerable Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah's 4th District last year; and former Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., who has yet to officially announce a comeback campaign in New York's 18th District; among other top recruits.