The GOP's Female Candidate Problem

The GOP's Female Candidate Problem

By Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 26, 2013

Standing in the speaker's lobby between votes, GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito recounted a recent conversation in which she was asked which of her fellow Republicans she’d most like to see run for president in 2016.

"I said, 'A great Republican woman,' " recalled the West Virginia congresswoman, who is running for Senate in 2014. "But I couldn't name exactly who."

Therein lies the heart of the problem in the Republican Party’s hopes of attracting a viable female candidate to consider a White House bid.

As the GOP works to close the gap with female voters -- who composed the majority of the 2012 electorate and supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by a 12-point margin --no viable Republican woman appears inclined to throw her hat in the 2016 ring. (That would seem to include Sarah Palin, whose dalliances with candidacy in 2012 left many observers convinced that she prefers to stay outside the campaign -- and governing -- fray. Michele Bachmann could run again, but the conservative congresswoman’s inability to gain traction in the last cycle casts doubt on her viability.) 

The potential consequences of this are daunting for a party that is staring down the likelihood of Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ standard-bearer, potentially making history as the first female presidential nominee from either major party.

Although the Republicans’ strategy for attracting more female voters is more complex than simply fielding a more diverse presidential field, the optics of Americans watching a host of Republican men fighting it out against one another as Clinton marches to the Democratic nomination is a source of concern for a party that hopes to win back the White House after eight years in exile.

Publicly, party officials are downplaying that worry. "Obviously, diversity would be great, but the race is not going to be defined by whether we have a woman; people are going to judge candidates based on their agenda,” said Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer.

“This isn’t a beauty contest,” he said. “It's about trying to put candidates forward who want to run for the presidency of the United States. We have extremely talented women. If they want to run, that’s awesome. If not, there’s no control over that."

Any suggestion that female voters are looking primarily to see how many women are on a debate stage is “insulting to women,” Spicer added. Yet he was also quick to point out that the RNC and the Republican campaign committees recently held a seminar promoting the recruitment and training of female candidates within party ranks.

GOP chatter about a woman running in 2016 has not been entirely absent, however, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte have all been mentioned as potential contenders. None, however, has taken a single step to suggest any real interest in mounting a bid, and all three have denied any intentions of exploring one.

“I think we’ve got some very talented governors in this country, putting aside members of Congress,” Ayotte told RCP outside the Senate chamber, saying she has not thought about running.

Ayotte, who was a top surrogate for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, mentioned the usual roster of potential female presidential candidates, and added Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a former congresswoman, to the mix. Fallin seems like a long-shot prospect, but Ayotte’s broader point is well-taken: Republican women are doing better at the top levels of government outside of Washington it: Four of the five current female governors are Republicans.

As the nation’s first Hispanic female governor, and someone with approval ratings that top 60 percent in a Democratic “blue” state, Martinez may be the most viable national candidate in the group.

But she has been the most emphatic of them all in ruling out a run in 2016, telling the National Journal recently that she refuses to “abandon her job” to seek the presidency and risk letting down the young girls to whom she is a role model.

The possibility does exist that a Republican woman not currently on the presidential radar screen might emerge in the next two years, but the GOP problem comes down to numbers: Of the 20 women currently serving in the Senate, only four are Republicans. In the House, the GOP claims just 19 of the 78 congresswomen.

“It’s something that bothers me,” Moore Capito acknowledged.

The president of the National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW), Rae Lynne Chornenky, said that having a viable female GOP presidential candidate in 2016 would create “a lot of excitement on the part of many grassroots organizations” but lamented that there doesn’t seem to be anyone taking early steps in that direction.

According to Chornenky, this dynamic has its roots in candidate recruitment at lower levels, which is why the “comprehensive” recruiting seminar mentioned by Sean Spicer is significant.

“When we train women to run for office or encourage women candidates, the studies have taught us that women have to be asked to run,” Chornenky said. “They’re not as likely to step up to the plate. Once we ask, even at the local level, it’s with the hope that they definitely will want to move up to the higher office in the future.”

Ayotte agreed: “They can be incredibly accomplished but maybe haven’t considered running for public office, or that there is a support system to help them do that.”

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted the high costs of running for Congress successfully, let alone for the White House, and said Republicans need to do a better job at supporting women candidates financially.

A conservative super PAC begun in 2011, ShePAC, has spent the last couple of years focused on recruiting and electing more conservative women. ShePAC adviser Jason Recher said that the Republican Party was in “dire straits” when it came to recruiting more female prospects at all levels of government and needed to get back to the basics in providing a support mechanism for would-be contenders.

Recher said that between 13 and 15 of the 36 Democratic Senate nominees next year could be women, but “Republicans, at this point, are going to have one at worst, maybe two or three at best. It’s staggering.”

One trait that several female candidates from both parties have shown in recent years is an ability to win in states more in line with the opposing side of the political spectrum. Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill won last year in the tough environments of North Dakota and Missouri, while Republicans Martinez and Ayotte have found electoral success in Democratic-leaning New Mexico and New Hampshire.

Recher pointed to this phenomenon as evidence suggesting that a Republican female presidential candidate might be particularly equipped to win in blue states.

“Women are crossing the threshold because they’re appealing in terms that voters can relate to,” he said. “They’re not scaring people like Anthony Weiner or Todd Akin.”

Even if Hillary Clinton were to pass on running in 2016, Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren have all been discussed as potential candidates, and at least one of them would be likely to run.

For the time being at least, the GOP simply does not have a similar field waiting in the wings, despite the political and cultural changes that have left much of the general public not only open to but yearning for the first “Madame President.”

“When Hilary Clinton ran several years back, I think we all recognized that the time has come and gone when we’re talking about ‘if’ a woman runs,” Murkowski said. “We’ve crossed that. Now we just need to work to continue to build it so that it’s not a subject of interesting discussion -- it’s just that’s the way it is.” 

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Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns

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