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.

Josh Reynolds / AP

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. "

Florida State Sen. Anitere Flores had a similar complaint. "This is a self-selected group of people who have come here, probably saying, 'Yeah, you know, We know we have a problem. We need to fix it.' But there are a bunch of other people that are in other meetings right now that maybe are thinking we don't have a problem -- we don't really have to go listen to that," she said, before apologizing. "I hope I don't get into trouble for saying all of that."

"There is a problem. There is a gap," she said. "And we can't just keep going around and saying we won married women, woohoo, that's great.... Step one is: We have a problem, let's move forward."

* * *

The major impediment to women achieving parity in office right now in our two-party system is another form of the gap -- what Case Western Reserve Professor Karen Beckwith has called the "partisan imbalance in elected women."

A September 2012 analysis by Beckwith found that Republican women in 2010, a wave year for the GOP that featured a record number of Republican women running for the House, were much less likely to win their primaries than were Democratic women. "Only 47 women won GOP nominations to run for House seats -- for a 37 percent win rate in the primaries. And only 24 Republican women actually won House seats in this very promising year," she wrote in a paper for the Scholars Strategy Network. "Democrats got shellacked in 2010, but even as their party lost its House majority, 91 Democratic women won their party's nomination (with a 68 percent win rate in primaries). In the end, 49 Democratic women were elected to the House."

It had been even worse in 2008: Women were 22.3 percent of the Democrats who ran for the House, but less than 10 percent of Republicans candidates. At the local level, only a third of state Republican legislative candidates were women, and "just over half of them won their contests.' Meanwhile, "More females ran on Democratic tickets, and two-thirds won."

So not only are female Republicans running at lower rates, they are winning at lower ones, too. This may be an artifact of the gender gap in voting patterns, which is related to the gender gap in how people perceive political messages. "In order to get more women candidates, we have to improve our overall numbers with women voters," said Myra Miller, a senior vice president at the Winston Group, a strategy firm, who spoke at the Summer Meeting.

All of this, along with gender gap when it comes to party identification, means that female Republican candidates face electorates at the outset with bases that are disproportionately male. The safest districts for them to run in as Republicans -- ones that have been engineered to be disproportionately white and non-urban -- are not the sort of places that have historically been the strongest districts for women candidates. They've done best in the sort of diverse urban districts that also happen to be better suited to Democrats.

Deputy RNC Communications Director Sarah Flores, a Harvard Law School graduate from Texas, pointed to an array of "specific projects to recruit more female candidates" the party is undertaking, from quarterly off-the-record strategizing sessions across party committees to the formal Women on the Right Unite campaign, a joint initiative of all the Republican committees just launched in June to promote recruitment and support for women candidates. Additionally, the National Republican Congressional Committee has launched Project Grow and Republican State Leadership Committee in May re-launched its Right Women Right Now project to recruit women for state legislatures.

Day dismissed the idea that controversies over sexist comments at the state level created a tension in the party as it looks to change its demographic appeal. "Both parties don't have a shortage of people saying stupid things and doing stupid things," she said. "People do on both sides just say and do things that are just dumb. You can't judge a party by that -- you judge a party by its values."

"Our party is better than what we look like on paper," she said. "We truly are a much better party than we sometimes look like."

But tensions between the party's commitment to change and to engaging a greater swath of the electorate once again appeared to come to a head in the meeting's waning hours, as a unanimous vote to boycott primary debates on CNN and NBC because of their plans to air Hillary Clinton biopics -- really as much an effort by the party to bring some order to the metastatic debate growth during the last presidential cycle as anything else -- allowed Democrats to point out they'd also be keeping their message off the air of two Spanish language stations owned by the networks.