Last June, House Republican leaders announced with much fanfare Project GROW, or Growing Republican Opportunities for Women, a program designed to elect more women to Congress. “Women are the majority, and we need to do a better job, and that’s what this is all about,” Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House GOP‘s campaign arm, said during the roll-out, referring to the fact that women proportionately have voted in greater numbers than men since 1980.
Three months later, Roll Call reported that the group had an initial list of 13 female candidates that they would be helping. A 14th woman, Florida state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who was running in a special election, was later added. Five Republican congresswomen endorsed Peters and held a fundraiser for her in December. “Kathleen is exactly the kind of strong woman we need more of in Congress,” Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner said at the time. “Congress needs more mothers, grandmothers and community leaders who know what it’s like to wake up every day and go to work for your family and the community.”
Despite the help, Peters lost the GOP primary in January to a former lobbyist named David Jolly. And Jolly is now facing off against former Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink, a woman. He is trailing Sink in polls ahead of the March 11 special election, as women’s groups assail him for lobbying against a bill that would’ve mandated equal pay for women in the Florida legislature.
Would Peters have fared better against Sink? No one will ever know. What’s clear is that Republicans are coming up short in their bid to recruit more women to run for office.
Thirty years ago, Republicans and Democrats had equal numbers of female politicians, but since then Democratic female representation has taken off dramatically. Part of the problem is that Republican female state legislators tend to be more moderate than their male counterparts and therefore have a tougher time getting through increasingly partisan primaries, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
“Women’s representation is very lopsided on the Democratic side and the Republican Party has to do more if they want to see more women elected to office,” Walsh says. “They need to go out—the party itself, the state parties—need to make primaries a priority. The numbers of Republican women that are running, it’s not the numbers you need to see an increase in representation at congressional level.”
Indeed, last election cycle 108 Republican women ran in House primaries, according to data compiled by Walsh’s center. Less than half won and only 20 were elected to Congress, most of them incumbents. The 19 Republican women currently serving in the House make up only 4.4 percent of the House, and only 8 percent of the GOP conference. The numbers this year are even worse: Only 73 Republican women, including 17 incumbents, have filed or are expected to file to run for a House seat in 2014. That’s a 33 percent decrease from last cycle, though there’s still time—albeit not much—for more women to sign up. By comparison, there are 62 Democratic congresswomen in the House, making up 30 percent of the Democratic caucus, and 149 women are running or expected to run in the 2014 primaries.
Another part of the problem is the lack of establishment help for female politicians, says Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at American University specializing in female political representation. “The Republican Party hasn’t been hospitable to Republican candidates in the past. There’s some degree of reluctance by women interested in running as to what kind of support they’d get from the Party if they do run,” Lawless says. “The important question is to find out how hard the Party has tried. 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. So, 13 or 14 candidates is incredibly low.”
While GROW makes help available to all women running for the House, it is focusing on the 13 races where women are somewhat competitive. And yet competitive is a relative term. Of the seven women who’ve qualified for the first tier of the House GOP campaign arm’s Young Guns status—the first of three tiers which earns them more political help—two trail male primary rivals in fundraising and another two have serious male primary challengers. In other words, less than half of the seven have promising hopes of advancing to the general election.
Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said “we are dedicated to helping all candidates in competitive races put together strong campaigns.”
“For the first time ever we have established a dedicated program directed by our female members… to engage female leaders on and off the ballot—in the 2014 cycle and beyond,” she said.
Ginning up backing to elect more Republican women looks to be an uphill battle, despite the leaders’ best intentions. An ABC-Fusion poll last October found that only 23 percent of Republicans agreed that “it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress,” while 60 percent of the Democrats surveyed agreed with that statement.
Nothing GROWs without support.