Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, until this year the only woman serving in the House Republican leadership, said she's "encouraged" by the party's focus on electing more women, arguing that it is necessary that the party "reflect America." "This Congress, there are four women at the leadership table on the Republican side, so I think that's a move in the right direction," she said.
But Republicans still have a long way to go. Despite the Republican Party's best efforts, the gender gap in Congress could grow over the next 20 years, Conway predicted. Women are increasingly realizing that they can make a difference within their own communities, without "being dragged through the mud" in a congressional campaign, she said.
And while Democratic outside groups such as EMILY's List and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's, D-N.Y., Off the Sidelines PAC are dedicated to recruiting and electing more female candidates, Republican strategists interviewed couldn't name a comparable GOP organization. Organizations such as She-PAC and VIEW PAC help to elect conservative women, but aren't involved in the recruitment process, while groups such as the NRCC's Woman Up! initiative are more focused on messaging. "There are a lot of groups out there that people don't realize are out there," said one national Republican operative, who contrasted GOP women's groups with ubiquitous Democratic organizations such as EMILY's List. But, the operative added, like the GOP, "they are starting to be more active."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee does not have a specific program aimed at recruiting women -- and doesn't discuss its recruitment process -- but spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said that the party will have "several strong Republican women" on the ticket next year. Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is favored to win the seat of retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia. National Republicans also point to former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Joni Ernst in Iowa, both of whom would be the first women to represent their states in the Senate, as well as Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, as some of their top female contenders this cycle. Liz Cheney is running in Wyoming, but national Republicans are siding with incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi in that contest.
But Conway, whose firm worked with Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, during his race against former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack last year, offers a word of caution to those first-time female candidates. Vilsack, she says, overemphasized her gender in the race, making the "miscalculation" that voters would [support] her because she would be the first woman elected to Congress from the Hawkeye State. "They're not looking at whether you carry a pocketbook, they're worried about their own pocketbook," Conway quipped.
Another rookie mistake, Conway said, is focusing too much on "women's issues," if such a thing exists. Democratic women, she said, put too much of an emphasis on abortion, while Republican women have the opportunity to take a broader view. "There are very few Democratic women who can begin or finish a sentence without mentioning a 'woman's right to choose,' " Conway said, noting that she's actually had her researchers go through hours of remarks by Democratic members to find a single woman who failed to mention abortion. They haven't found one yet. "There is a tremendous opening for the 'whole women,' if you will, to step up and run for office as a Republican .... What do you do every week gals, do you fill up the gas tank or do you have an abortion?" she said.