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House GOP efforts to increase female lawmakers falling flat

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© Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

By Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke, The Hill

House Republicans had hoped an aggressive recruitment push during the "year of the woman" would help boost the number of female lawmakers in their conference next year.

But a little more than two months before election day, things haven't gone as planned.

Republicans were successful in recruiting a record-breaking number of women to run for seats across the country, an effort meant to reshape a GOP conference that now includes just 23 women out of 236 members.

However, given the political headwinds facing the GOP in this year's midterms, it appears the party will be fortunate to get voters to back even that many of its female candidates. And in a worst-case scenario, the party could end up having 10 fewer GOP women in the 116th Congress.

"2018 is the year of the woman - except on the Republican side, where the ranks of GOP women are likely to shrink," said David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report. "It's a fairly dire situation for Republican women in the House."

If every female incumbent and challenger in a competitive race comes out on top this fall, the GOP could have 20 to 25 women in their conference next year, according to an analysis done by The Hill.

That would give the party around the same number of Republican women in the House that they currently have, though if there are fewer Republicans overall next Congress, congresswomen could make up a slightly larger percentage of the entire conference.

Everything would have to go the GOP's way, however, for that rosy scenario to come to fruition, and the reality is that Republicans are facing an uphill battle this fall.

If a blue wave materializes, GOP women could see their ranks shrink to somewhere between 10 and 15 members in the lower chamber, according to The Hill's analysis.

Of the 65 Republican women who are still in the running, nearly two dozen are locked in competitive races, including Reps. Barbara Comstock (Va.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and Mimi Walters (Calif.).

And there are roughly 30 female GOP candidates who are competing in safe Democratic districts where there is little chance of them being elected, while a number of challengers still need to get through their primary to make it on the ballot this fall.

"The Republican Party has a tendency to like to recruit women to run in very tough races, which is probably smart because I think we have a lot of talented women who are probably the only ones that could win those races," GOP strategist Liz Mair told The Hill, using Comstock as an example.

"But with that being said, the fact that we have a tendency to recruit women into these tough races also means that they could be the ones who end up getting pounded the hardest in November."

One potential bright spot is in Southern California, where Young Kim is vying to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R) to become the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress.

Still, the House GOP is already poised to lose 25 percent of their female lawmakers next year due to retirements and lawmakers running for higher office.

And Democratic women are likely to see their numbers grow, thanks to a record-breaking number throwing their hat into the political ring and a far more favorable roadmap for their party. That means the partisan gender gap on Capitol Hill is almost guaranteed to widen next year.

"It won't be a gender gap - we're going to have a gender canyon," Wasserman said.

Republicans had initially been optimistic about their chances of getting more female lawmakers elected in November.

Some female candidates who were seen as potential rising stars include Ashley Nickloes, a military pilot who ran for an open seat in a ruby-red district in Tennessee, and Shantel Krebs, the South Dakota secretary of State and a former beauty pageant queen, who was vying for the state's at-large congressional seat.

Both women ended up losing to male candidates in their primaries, to the disappointment of some GOP operatives.

Part of the reason why Republicans struggle to elect more women is that they don't tend to subscribe to identity politics in the same way that Democrats do.

A recent CBS poll found that Democratic women were three times more likely than Republicans to vote for a female over a man in a race where both candidates shared the same views.

Julie Conway, the executive director of the Value in Electing Women (VIEW) Pac, said getting female candidates through the primary process is one of the most challenging aspects in accomplishing their goal.

"I wish we had gotten women through more of these primaries, but they're going to be competitive," she said.

"And it's not just about supporting a woman candidate, it's about the woman being the best candidate."

Female GOP candidates also find themselves having to answer for Trump's controversial policies impacting women and families in a way that their male counterparts don't always have to do, which may prove to be a difficult balancing act this election cycle.

"It's probably somewhat tougher as a woman to be just a wholesale Trump enthusiast without any sort of caveat attached to that," Mair said.

Party leaders typically don't get involved in primaries, which can make it harder for candidates to get an early leg up in their races.

But the House GOP's campaign arm, which has been working to recruit more female candidates in recent years, noted that the organization plans to spend heavily to help women win in the general election.

"It's really important that not only are we recruiting women, we're recruiting diverse women in seats that we're going to likely spend money on in the fall," Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Hill. "These are some of our best candidates, period."

Democrats also have the advantage of a long-standing centralized effort to recruit and support female candidates in the form of EMILY's List, which was founded in 1985.

Republican organizations to support female candidates exist, but they don't have the same level of fundraising and prominence as EMILY's List, nor have they been around as long.

Maggie's List was founded by a group of conservative women in 2010 to serve as a counter, while the VIEW Pac has been around since 1997.

And in recent years, other GOP groups have begun to form, including the RightNOW Women PAC, which was founded in the 2014 election cycle, and Winning for Women Inc., which launched this election cycle.

Another group that has taken a larger role in electing conservative women is the Defending Main Street Super PAC, which has been boosting female candidates in a number of primary races around the country.

Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, says there needs to be more widespread, early support for Republican women if they are to have any chance of making real progress.

"During the critical primary season, too many Republican female candidates are being left behind," Chamberlain said. "If the GOP is serious about getting more women to Washington, we need to open our checkbooks and put our money where our mouth is."

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