The Republican Party has struck a new strategy to combat the perception that the party is waging a "war on women" and to reverse its prospects among female voters. The solution, the party decided, is to have more female foot soldiers of its own.
Republicans have struggled to appeal to women in recent years. In 2012, President Obama won re-election by beating Republican Mitt Romney among women by 11 percentage points. The party's own after-action report on the 2012 results found that there is “growing unrest within the community of Republican women frustrated by the party's negative image among women.”
The party's response was the creation in 2013 of Growing Republican Opportunities for Women, or GROW, to recruit and mentor female candidates and to refine the party's message to female voters.
GROW's recruitment committee is dominated by Republican female members of Congress, including Reps. Ann Wagner, of Missouri; Diane Black, of Tennessee; Cynthia Lummis, of Wyoming; Renee Ellmers, of North Carolina; and Jackie Walorski, of Indiana.
Female candidates say those lawmakers provide invaluable mentoring and advice as they slog through their campaigns.
When Darlene Senger, a state representative from Illinois, was exploring a run for Congress, she went to Washington. When Wagner and Black heard about the trip, they insisted that they be on her schedule. Now Senger talks with a female lawmaker about her campaign a couple of times a month.
"They're there for me if I need help," Senger said, "and they're like, 'OK, darling, do this, do that.' "
Elise Stefanik, a Republican House candidate in upstate New York, wasn’t recruited by the GOP but found an immediate source of support in the female lawmakers.
“I have been reached out to by many of the female members,” she said, listing calls from Black, Wagner and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. “It’s a great way for encouragement. Every month I’ll get a call from a new member, encouraging me to reach my goals and asking about my race.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee did not disclose how many female candidates it has recruited, but shared a list of a dozen female candidates it considered to be in its top tier.
GROW also helps male Republican candidates communicate with female voters in their districts — mainly by sending in women who can talk to those voters. Wagner will make an appearance with Rep. Keith Rothfus, of Pennsylvania, at an event targeting women next month.
Male candidates are also the main beneficiaries of GROW efforts to increase female voting by sharing logistical information, including training manuals, with campaigns.
"A lot of that is directed at perhaps men who are out there, and talking to women. Women talking to women, there's an ingrained advantage," said Elizabeth Emken, a Republican candidate from Florida.
And the best way to message to single female voters — which Romney lost to Obama by 36 percentage points — was to offer them a candidate to whom they could relate, Stefanik said.
“I am a young, unmarried professional woman who is running for office on conservative principle,” she said. “I think the best way to blunt that [negative view of the GOP among single women] is be a good example of the opposite.”
While Republicans face immediate concerns with the 2014 midterm elections and 2016 presidential race, party officials say GROW is a long-term commitment by all of the party's political committees to recruit female candidates and win over women voters.
“Project GROW was created to be a long-term effort of the NRCC,” said committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. “Our goal is to continue to make this a priority for the committee and its members and rethink on how we approach politics and communication.”
For its part, the RNC is investing millions of dollars to improve its collection of voter data, including more information about women, and using it to target female voters, said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
During the GOP's annual winter meeting recently, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Co-Chairman Sharon Day introduced five of the party's "rising stars," all of whom are women: Chelsi Henry, who works for Florida's chief financial officer; Alison Howard, a conservative activist; Alex Smith, head of the College Republican National Committee; Kimberly Yee, an Arizona state senator; and Monica Youngblood, a state representative from New Mexico.
Republicans also picked a woman to deliver their rebuttal to Obama's State of the Union address: Rogers, the most senior Republican woman in the House.
“The best bet on how to message to female voters," Stefanik said, "is to have female candidates.”