New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik is deeply worried about her party.
“We are facing a crisis level of Republican women in Congress,” Stefanik said on Thursday, noting that there are only 13 Republican women in the U.S. House, down from 23 last session.
Stefanik stepped down as House Republicans’ recruitment head last month. But with a new group she’s launching, dedicated to boosting women candidates, she still has top Republicans’ full attention.
At a Thursday launch event for her group, E-PAC, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer gathered with candidates, pollsters and strategists to talk about answers to this problem.
Fundraising was a major focus of the launch event, along with recruitment tactics and overcoming sexism towards candidates.
However, there was some dispute among attendees about how much President Trump — who pollsters say has driven some women from the party — has to do with the party’s appeals to both women voters and potential women candidates.
“I think if you’re thinking about 2020, it is a presidential election year, and the top of the ticket is a big factor when people are turning out and voting,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, citing a December poll. “Among Republican women, 51 percent said they found [Trump’s] tone concerning.”
Not only that, but among white suburban women — considered a key swing voting bloc that helped Democrats prevail in many 2018 races — 51 percent found his tone very concerning, Martin added.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Stefanik shrugged off Trump’s effect on recruitment, noting that women — particularly single and young women — have long tended to vote far more Democratic than men.
“This has been a problem that predates President Trump, and it is going to be a problem post-Trump,” Stefanik said. “Regardless, it is a problem for the party.”
Stefanik has strong recruitment bona fides, and until recently she was recruitment chair for the NRCC.
During her NRCC tenure, the number of Republican women congressional candidates spiked. However, many of those women didn’t make it past the primaries, helping fuel Stefanik’s conviction that promoting women in primaries would boost the party’s numbers.
She publicly feuded with Chairman Emmer over whether or not to fund primary candidates. Emmer stressed on Thursday that the NRCC typically stays out of primary races, and that he sees Stefanik’s PAC as “an enhancement” of the party’s existing recruitment activities.
At her event, Stefanik emphasized the importance of this effort.
“I believe that one way we can attempt to change this trend is by supporting strong women candidates pre-primary,” Stefanik added. “As any candidate will tell you, this investment is critical.”
It’s true that Republican women in particular can face bigger obstacles than their Democratic counterparts, as NPR recently reported — for example, in fundraising, infrastructure and the party’s belief that it’s important to elect more women.
That said, Trump and his policies in particular may be keeping women from wanting to be Republican candidates, said Christine Matthews, a GOP pollster who spoke at the event.
“Women candidates typically come out of a cohort of college-educated women. And there are far fewer college educated women identifying as Republicans these days,” she told NPR after the event.
While college educated women were already becoming more Democratic before Trump was elected, his presence appeared to accelerate that trend.
“I think that is a result of the 2016 election and the tone and some of the policies the president has set,” Matthews said.
Her observation points to a few potential solutions for Republicans. One is that the Republican Party could expand its search beyond the usual pool of candidates, and recruit women who are not college graduates.
But as Matthews also noted, boosting women’s presence in the party may require some policy shifts, or at least different policy priorities.
She named areas where the party might benefit from broadening its spectrum of views — climate or immigration — or ramping up an issue’s visibility, like paid leave.
She’s certainly not the first to suggest this; recently-ousted GOP Rep. Mia Love has been calling on her male counterparts to boost issues like contraception that she believes will help women feel more included.
“I mean, seriously, I am pro-life. I’m unapologetically pro-life. Why not give women the option of having their choices when it comes to health care before they have to choose between keeping a life and ending a life?” Love said at a December Politico event.
But any policy shifts would also have to be undertaken on a case-by-case basis, Matthews said.
“You’re going to have to be competitive in these suburban districts. That means you’re going to have to come to the center on some of those issues in those districts if you want to be competitive,” she said.
Meanwhile, in more conservative districts, candidates would need a different tack.
“There are Republican women who are very happy in where the party is in terms of ‘build the wall,’ in terms of pro-life, whatever else,” Matthews added.
Stefanik said that in terms of agenda, she thinks GOP women lawmakers’ efforts in areas like trade and combating human trafficking need more emphasis. But she also indicated that she isn’t worried about the party’s overarching priorities.
“We are a party that supports economic opportunity, that supports freedom, that supports constitutional liberties, and I believe that resonates with women voters in this country,” she said. “That’s what I find in my district. Every district is different.”
“I am a believer that all issues are women’s issues,” Stefanik added.