Why Republicans Have Trouble Electing Women to Congress

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 7, 2014 · 9:55 AM EDT

Fewer Republican women are running for Congress in 2014, compared to last cycle. That’s a fact. But what it means — or whether it says anything at all about the GOP — is entirely a different matter.

Unfortunately, not every attempt to explain the development is even-handed and analytic.

“What’s clear is that Republicans are coming up short in their bid to recruit more women to run for office,” according to a Time magazine piece in late February stemming from a study conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The study was the catalyst for two rounds of stories (examples here and here, along with the Time piece), which EMILY’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee redistributed to mock Republicans for the lack of female House candidates.

According to the study and initial analysis by Time, only 73 Republican women, including 17 incumbents, have filed or are expected to file to run for a House seat in 2014 — a 33 percent decrease from 2012.

“The important question is to find out how hard the Party has tried,” Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, told Time. Lawless ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island’s 2nd District in 2006 and is on the advisory board of Emerge America, a Democratic recruitment group.

“It’s actually impossible not to be able to identify a qualified female candidate in every single district; we’re talking about 435 districts here,” she added.

The idea that Republicans ought to recruit women to run in every congressional district in the country is odd, given the relatively few number of competitive districts.

There are 177 congressional districts where President Barack Obama received at least 54 percent of the vote in 2012. Only two of those districts are currently held by Republicans. Both are in California (Reps. Gary G. Miller and David Valadao), and both had some unique circumstances that helped them win their races.

But according to the Time study and report, Republicans ought to be recruiting women in districts that are virtually unwinnable, simply to add numbers to a body count. In fact, recruiting GOP women in these districts might actually hurt the party’s cause.

How can party strategists credibly ask a woman to put her career and family on hold with full knowledge that she will likely lose? It’s not unreasonable to give Republicans a recruitment pass on those districts.

That leaves 258 districts where a GOP nomination should be of some value.

Of course, Republicans are near their modern day high in the House of Representatives, controlling 234 seats (including vacancies). That’s more than the 230 seats following the 1994 elections and the most since the GOP held 246 seats after President Harry Truman’s first midterm in 1946.

It’s difficult to believe that the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and Lawless believe and expect Republicans to recruit Republican women to run against Republican incumbents. Neither party does that.

This cycle in Illinois, GOP strategists were enthusiastic about the political future of Erika Harold, an African-American Harvard law school graduate who won the Miss America pageant in 2003. But they could not support her challenge to freshman GOP Rep. Rodney Davis in the 13th District.

In Texas earlier this month, tea party candidate Katrina Pierson challenged former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions in the Republican primary. She was a Republican woman running for Congress, but the party could not support her.

On the other side of aisle, Democrats don’t automatically defer to women in primaries either, even when there isn’t an incumbent in the race.

In California’s 31st District, Democrats in Washington, D.C., spent much of the cycle preferring Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar over attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, even though she is an extremely credible candidate. And in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put Kevin Strouse on its Jump Start list last year, even though Shaughnessy Naughton is also running.

Realistically, then, there are just 26 potentially competitive seats currently held by Democrats where Republican recruitment matters.

Out of those 26 seats, Republicans really aren’t contesting two of them (Connecticut’s 5th District and Oregon’s 4th District) with a man or woman, leaving 24 districts. Out of those two dozen seats, Republicans have women running in eight (33 percent). Those women range from likely winners such as Mia Love in Utah’s 4th District to long-shots, such as Tootie Smith in Oregon’s 5th District.

In addition, there are 23 Republican open seats where a woman could run without having to challenge an incumbent. Two of those open seats are being left by women (Shelley Moore Capito’s 2nd District in West Virginia and Michele Bachmann’s 6th District in Minnesota). There are female Republican candidates in both races.

But in the 21 open seats left by Republican men, there is a Republican woman running in 11 of them. And at least one of them, state Sen. Mimi Walters, is a heavy favorite to succeed a man, in California’s 45th District.

Finally, as I’ve written before, some aspects of candidate recruitment are out of the party committees’ control, whether it be male or female candidates.

Republican strategists tried to recruit a Hispanic woman in Texas’ 23rd District, but she couldn’t tie up a couple of business deals in time. GOP strategists convinced state Rep. Kathleen M. Peters to run in the recent special election in Florida’s 13th District. But she had trouble gaining momentum in the primary while caring for her 84-year-old grandfather who has Parkinson’s and making funeral arrangements for her brother who died thousands of miles away during the campaign.

Most Republican strategists agree that the party needs more women to run for the House, and they would be happy to recruit “qualified” women who have a chance of winning. But there just aren’t as many opportunities as the Rutgers study and subsequent analysis suggests.