A band of lawmakers stood ready to support Rep. Ann Wagner (left) in leading the National Republican Congressional Committee, but she decided not to run without the House majority leader’s support. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Republican women are irked that their male colleagues aren’t doing enough to fix the party’s problem with women.
The already meager ranks of female House Republicans had just been further decimated in the midterms when Rep. Ann Wagner was readying a play to head the party’s campaign arm — in the hopes of leading a recovery.
Wagner was indisputably well-credentialed for the job: The Missouri Republican had just won in a competitive district. She had experience raising money as finance director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as past success helping Republican women win campaigns. A band of supportive lawmakers stood ready to vote her into the position. Story Continued Below
But there was one major problem: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t want her leading the NRCC. The California Republican called Wagner to express his preference for a far less prominent male lawmaker, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, according to three sources familiar with the conversation. Wagner could have defied McCarthy — some lawmakers and aides thought she’d win if she would have — but she realized doing so would create tension and would be counterproductive as the party tried to pivot toward 2020.
Wagner decided not to run.
“The leader had a different plan,” was all Wagner would say about her decision. The majority leader’s office said that “McCarthy is supportive of and confident that Ms. Wagner’s creative agenda will deliver results this cycle.”
Some House Republican women are frustrated that their male counterparts aren’t taking the party’s problem with women seriously. After brutal midterm elections — in which suburban moms broke heavily from Republicans to back Democrats, and the number of GOP female lawmakers shrank from 23 to 13 — Republican women are telling their overwhelmingly male colleagues that if they don’t solve their women problem they won’t win back the majority.
Several Republican women are preparing their own plans to help their female colleagues, support women candidates and woo suburban women just in case nobody listens. Wagner, for example, is about to relaunch a “suburban caucus” in the House. The group will craft an agenda aimed at winning back suburban women by promoting issues like paid family leave and child care tax credits.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) also announced last week she would leave the NRCC for which she recently recruited a record number of GOP women to run. Instead, she’ll be building her own political operation helping those very Republican women win in primaries.
“I am going to keep pointing out to my colleagues that we are at a crisis level for GOP women,” Stefanik said in a recent interview. “This election should be a wake-up call to Republicans that we need to do better … We need to be elevating women’s voices, not suppressing them.”
In interviews with POLITICO, Republican women were divided about whether GOP leaders and their male colleagues were getting the message. In one of his first moves as NRCC chairman-elect, for example, Emmer told a reporter Stefanik’s idea to help female candidates in primaries was “a mistake.” The backlash was swift. Emmer had to quickly clarify that he meant specifically that the NRCC should not get involved in primaries. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), tweeted his support for Stefanik’s idea. And a group of GOP women rebuked Emmer for the comments.
“I’m sorry — Tom Emmer is wrong on this one,” said retiring Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, who supported Stefanik in her first election and supports her primary idea. “To say what Elise is doing is a mistake? We need to applaud her. She’s filling a void.”
She added: “OK, the NRCC’s policy is that they are not going to help in the primary … But if [women] don’t get out of the primary, what good is that?”
Stefanik, for her part, tweeted Emmer’ comments out with a bit of her own sass.
“NEWSFLASH I wasn’t asking for permission,” she wrote with red sirens inserted into her feed.Stefanik later told POLITICO in an interview that “Emmer’s tone has changed and has been a bit more respectful and encouraging of my efforts.”
In fact, Stefanik said she’s received a lot of support from colleagues since bringing up her concerns when lawmakers returned to Washington following the midterms. Stefanik is close with McCarthy, even nominating him to be minority leader. And she said the California Republican has been receptive to her message and is encouraging her to speak out.
Indeed, the NRCC has been on the defensive since Emmer’s comments, which come as the number of House GOP women is set to drop to the lowest number since 1994. When he takes office, Emmer plans to sit down with all 13 remaining GOP women for a candid tell-all “listening session” about what went wrong in 2018, according to an NRCC aide.
“You can’t not recognize the problem, the numbers are so terrible,” said an NRCC aide.
But it’s unclear whether that will be enough. Some women like Wagner are still frustrated that the gravity of the situation has yet to sink in, arguing that “I have seen no sign” of reflection. Even Stefanik is pushing her colleagues to conduct an “autopsy” of what happened and why they lost so many female voters and lawmakers this year.
“The next election should have started the night of Nov. 7, that’s how passionate and dedicated to it I am in moving toward building a conference that looks more like America — and certainly adding more women and diversity to our numbers,” Wagner said in a recent interview. “And if they get around to doing an autopsy and ‘lessons learned’ discussion, then great. But there are a number of us who are just going to forge ahead.”
Black and Wagner both support Stefanik’s plan to try to help GOP women win in primaries. Last cycle, Stefanik recruited around 100 female candidates to run but most of them lost in primaries.Stafanik’s plan includes both financial support but also a sort of “boot camp” for female candidates with a focus on political strategy. Stefanik will also encourage women to embrace what makes them different. Some GOP women in the past have preferred to de-emphasize their gender, but some GOP women think maybe now they should talk about it more.
“When I ran in 2014 the first time, a lot of the advice was: ‘You need to sound like, act like, dress like a typical member of Congress,’ when the average age was about 60,” Stefanik said. “And I realized that was really bad advice. People are looking for authenticity so you should lean into what makes you different and what makes you unique.”
Black and Wagner both helped GOP women win elections in 2012, though it went largely unnoticed on Capitol Hill. The duo went on the road together to promote as many Republican women as possible ahead of the next midterms.
“We kind of looked at one another one day and said, ‘Let’s just do it, the NRCC isn’t gonna do it. Let’s go recruit us some good women,” Black said.
Wagner added: “You want the best candidate, you want the best person. But if in that field there’s a woman who does have the skills and the capacity and the ability to serve in Congress, we should be doing whatever we can to support her.”
As they crisscrossed the country, Black and Wagner coached roughly two dozen female GOP candidates as they battled tight primary races. They helped fund many of those campaigns — including Stefanik’s — and were successful at growing the number of GOP women in the House by five.
Now all but one are gone, including Reps. Mia Love of Utah, Mimi Walters of California and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who just lost in November. “The only one left standing is Elise, and that’s disappointing,” Wagner said.
At the time they traveled the country, Black said she focused on teaching first-time candidates how to raise money. It’s simply harder for women, she said, because they are still dealing with sexism from a male-dominated donor class.
One tip she swears by: If you’re asking for money from a man, invite his wife to lunch.
“Businessmen sometimes are a little bit cautious about giving women these big checks. If they’re married, they say they have to talk to their wife,” Black said. She added that she decided to start meeting with couples, which often yielded bigger checks.
After four successful congressional races, Black said fundraising can be infuriating for female candidates who are just as, if not more, qualified than men running in the same races. Over the years, she’s learned that a man can ask for $1,000 and receive the full amount, while she asks for $1,000 and will get only half.
Black took office in 2011, the same year the House designated its first women’s bathroom off the House floor. Then, there were 76 women serving in the chamber. When she leaves, there will be 103, nearly 90 percent of whom are Democrats.
“It’s so disappointing I could just scream,” Black said of the dwindling number of GOP women. “We have got to grow the women in our party.”
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