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Female Senators Join GOP Circle, but Not the Inner One

Female Senators Join GOP Circle, but Not the Inner One

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 14, 2014

The newly elected Senate Republican leadership team addressed the press on Thursday, looking very much like the old iteration: six white men, half of them named John.

But that photo op looked different from another one that took place the day before. On Wednesday, soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with new members of the Republican conference whose victories helped the Kentucky senator achieve his life’s ambition. When it came time for a “first day of school” photo, the newbies were assembled strategically.

McConnell stood in the center, flanked by two women dressed in shades of pink. Both Shelley Moore Capito and Joni Ernst won what had been longtime Democratic seats, increasing the GOP’s female representation in the upper chamber to six.

Down the line were a few older white men. But notably present were two young faces, of whom the new majority leader is, and should be, particularly proud: 40-year-old Coloradan Cory Gardner -- who became this cycle’s golden boy by defeating an incumbent in a state Barack Obama won twice -- and 37-year-old Tom Cotton, a combat veteran with a shiny resume who trounced a sitting senator and, in essence, what was left of the Democratic Party in Arkansas.

In a way, the two photos represent the new GOP majority’s problems and its opportunities. Republican senators elected this year make a diverse bunch. In addition to Capito, Ernst, Gardner, and Cotton, South Carolina’s Tim Scott became the first black Republican elected to the Senate in the South since Reconstruction.  They bring a breath of fresh air to a conference full of white-haired men in suits from a party that has notoriously struggled to relate to women and minority voters.

Members of the leadership team are elected by their party colleagues, and seniority, party loyalty and service help members ascend through the ranks. Those chosen were not surprises. But Thursday’s leadership elections underscore that while the GOP has come a long way in just this past cycle, the road ahead is still long.

“In terms of leadership roles, they’re stuck between a rock and hard place: They want to diversify and say they’re not all white men … but a lot of white men have been there a long time and earned these positions,” said Jennifer Lawless, a government professor at American University who is focused on women’s involvement in politics.

The dueling illustrations are not lost on McConnell. Current and former aides say the senator has and will continue to find ways to elevate women, young members and minorities.

“He would be the first one to say we can’t survive as a party of white men. McConnell is as gender-blind as anybody I’ve worked for,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, who ran McConnell’s first Senate campaign in 1984 and then served as his chief of staff.

“More than anything, he understands, like good CEOs do, [that] in a management team you need to have different perspectives.  It makes your output stronger,” she said. “McConnell has a reputation -- for a reason -- as a wily legislator: He is able to see many steps ahead.”

In 2013, he appointed rising party star Kelly Ayotte as a counsel to the Republican leader, a non-elected advisory role. Party operatives and strategists point to the New Hampshire senator as an example of someone who will continue to rise into the top ranks of the GOP.

And the majority leader-elect has already developed a close relationship with Cotton. The now-72-year-old lawmaker remembers being a 40-something senatorl. He wants young and new members to feel like they’re relevant and involved, one aide said.

“Republican struggles with diversity are well documented and well deserved. But the efforts of the party to attract new faces and diverse voices is beginning to pay off in the House and Senate,” says Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former deputy chief of staff to Eric Cantor.

“These are not just new and diverse faces -- which the GOP desperately needs. These are people who got elected to get things done, which the country desperately needs. They will play a very active role in shaping and promoting legislation and will hit the ground running.”

Aides say McConnell’s pledge to restore the Senate to regular order -- meaning full committee reviews of legislation and voting on amendments to bills -- will allow newer members to become involved in and familiar with the process and get their names and faces out in public view. “There will be natural niches where they can take the lead,” Mullins Grissom said.

That process will also help Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is slated to chair the Energy Committee. Murkowski will likely be the only woman to head a major committee in the new Senate. Under Democratic control, the upper chamber has seven female chairs. Leading a panel often provides more benefits than party leadership positions do, as the role is more tangible to constituents.

The majority can also appoint members to task forces or to certain beneficial committees, and send them on overseas trips. On the public relations front, strategists say McConnell can guide certain members to the cameras and Sunday morning news shows.

“With a group like this, experienced and articulate, it would be mistake not to get them out and meet the press,” says Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate majority leader from Mississippi.

“When I was the leader, it dawned on me pretty quickly that we were all white males and exclusively from the South,” he said in an interview with RCP. “We needed a little more diversity and different point of view.” Lott appointed Washington Sen. Slade Gorton to the counsel position. Lott’s tenure also overlapped with Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s elected leadership post as conference chair.

“Women just sometimes have a little different perspective,” Lott said. “Kay would not shy from speaking up. I called her ‘the needle.’ If she got on to something and [was] determined to get it done, she would needle you to death.”

Aides point to exit polls that show McConnell won women voters by three percentage points in his race against Alison Lundergan Grimes (and they point to one effective ad in particular). Some strategists argue that the task is not just McConnell’s -- that women will make their own way through the ranks given time.

“Republican women in the Senate have gone from just enough [of them] to play a tennis doubles game, to now being able to field a basketball team, with one to spare. I expect these women to elevate themselves,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro.

“Women tend to have less of a need to mark our territory and get into arm-wrestling matches with each other. McConnell and GOP leadership would be smart to let these ladies spread their wings and do their thing,” Navarro added. She pointed to McConnell’s wife, who was labor secretary under George W. Bush and a powerful figure in his campaigns. “McConnell is married to Elaine Chao. He knows enough to embrace and be in a full partnership with a smart, independent-minded, capable woman at home. He needs to do the same with his female colleagues.”

Democrats face their own public relations issues too. Even through the party took a major drubbing in last week’s election, Senate Democrats re-elected Harry Reid as their leader. New York’s Chuck Schumer was also re-elected as vice chair of the conference. But the team already included Washington’s Patty Murray. And Reid brought two more women, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, into the fold through appointed positions. (For Warren, Reid created a new post: liaison to the party’s liberal wing.) The party also elected a red-stater, Montana’s Jon Tester, to lead the campaign arm, an unenviable task given Tuesday’s results.

On the House side, Republicans have been lauded for grooming young members and women for leadership positions, as well as promoting geographical diversity. Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana were re-elected majority leader and whip, respectively. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state was re-elected conference chair, the GOP’s messaging chief.

Meanwhile, House Democrats have come under fire for their aging leadership ranks and have been criticized for not elevating younger members more quickly, especially as the party hemorrhaged seats in the last two midterms. Nancy Pelosi took issue with the criticism and was visibly irritated by it during a press conference on Thursday.

"What was the day that any of you said to Mitch McConnell, 'Aren't you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn't you step aside?' Have you ever asked him that question?" said Pelosi, is a top fundraiser for Democrats. "I'm here as long as my members want me to be here, as long as there is a reason to be here.”

Leadership elections and other congressional posts may sound and feel like inside-baseball matters to the general public, but they do help shape perceptions.

“Party ID matters way more to voters than an X or Y chromosome,” said Lawless, the American University professor. Still, she noted, it is important to get the visuals right.

Take the photo of McConnell and the newly elected senators. “The average person is going to maybe see that photo once,” Lawless said. “But, a photo like that is better than a photo like the one with George W. Bush signing a partial-birth abortion ban bill surrounded by all men … or the photo of Obama signing a Guantanamo Bay closing order surrounded by all white men.” The absence of diversity can sometimes make the photo the story, instead of event spotlighted.

As for the GOP Senate leadership team photo, “symbolically it’s a problem, which is why, in a lot of photo shoots, we see Kelly Ayotte out there. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Joni Ernst,” Lawless added.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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