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Wanted: Female candidates for federal office

From left, Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) confer before speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill on June 29. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

On Jan. 3, 2013, the Senate broke two records. That day, 20 women raised their right hands to take the oath of office, forming the largest group of women senators in history. It was also the first time that five women were simultaneously elected to the upper chamber.

That achievement has been hailed as a high watermark for women’s achievement in Washington. But so far, it has also proved impossible to repeat.

Though more and more women have appeared on ballots over the past three years, it is still unlikely that the 2017 Senate class will have as many new female faces. This year, for instance, nine women are running for Senate — but with two months to go before Election Day, only two are comfortably within range of winning.

Despite improvements over the last decade, there is still a lack of women willing to run for political office. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

Democrats and Republicans are engaged in an aggressive and conscious campaign to recruit more women — and once they’ve convinced a promising woman to run, to ensure that she has the resources necessary to win. But their results have been decidedly mixed.

“Women often don’t think of elected office as the first step of public service,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to electing pro-abortion rights Democratic women. “They often think that, ‘Well, I’m going to work on the PTA,’ or ‘I’m going to work on the environmental organization I care about.’”

Emily’s List reports that it takes multiple tries to get a woman to agree to run for any office. Schriock said finding women receptive to running for the Senate — the highest statewide elected position in the federal government — is even more challenging.

“If you’re talking about a class of women running for Senate, it is rare to have that many women who are ready to jump into those races,” Schriock said, adding many prospective female candidates don’t see politics as the road to change.

Both Republicans and Democrats have encountered similar roadblocks in getting women to seriously contemplate running for federal office, including worries about fundraising, exposing their families to negative publicity and the burdens of often trying to maintain two homes — one in Washington and one in their home states.

“The thing I was probably most curious about was how it works to have lives in two different places,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who was elected in the record year of 2012, said in an interview. “My husband still lives in North Dakota.”

The recruiting problem is most daunting for Republicans — there are currently six Republican women in the Senate compared with 14 Democratic women. There is one new female Republican nominee in a competitive Senate race this year, compared with nine Democratic women. Republican strategists acknowledge that their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is unlikely to help their efforts, given his many disparaging comments about women.

GOP strategist Katie Packer, who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said the problem has been compounded by women who say they don’t want their personal lives dragged into politics.

“I think there tends to be a little bit of cynicism about politics and they are just more interested in serving in some other way,” Packer said.

The dilemma for Republicans starts with their messaging to and about women, which seems to be widening the gender gap — Trump trails rival Hillary Clinton among women by double digits in the latest polls. GOP men are often seen as enemies of reproductive rights, and comments about rape by former Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — who both lost — have not helped. A 2015 survey by Pew Charitable Trusts found that 52 percent of women either strongly identify or lean Democratic compared with 36 percent for Republicans.

“There are a lot of women who are disgusted by politics, so they don’t really want to get into the game,” Packer said.

Persuading women to run has become a year-round obsession for strategists. One major challenge is finding women at the building-block level of the recruiting tree: state and local elections.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, (D-Wis.) — the first openly gay women in that chamber — recalled her first race for public office: a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors when she was 24 years old. She was already participating in a number of political organizations and activist groups, and wanted to seek public office. But it still took active encouragement and mentorship to keep her in the race.

“I don’t know that I would have had the courage if there weren’t an openly gay man and a woman on the Dane County board already” Baldwin said in an interview. “They had to say, ‘Yes, you’re talented. Yes, you ought to be on the board.'”

Nearly every woman interviewed described challenges in breaking into local political networking circles, saying such events are typically organized by men and held in male-dominated spaces, such as sporting events, cigar clubs and poker nights.

“They don’t do that to keep women out, but most of the people in the circle are men. As a woman, you can either pretend you enjoy that stuff or you’re kept out of it,” Packer said.

One difference between male and female candidates, several strategists and lawmakers said, is that women need to be asked, and several times, to step up to the plate.

“Women just want to be asked,” Schriock said. “They don’t just want to assume they can do it. They want to know that they have other people’s confidence in their abilities.

Recruitment relies on a network of scouts that includes elected officials, major donors and women’s groups such as Emily’s List and the conservative Susan B. Anthony List. But Republican groups are far less organized and focused than their counterparts on the left.

“There really isn’t one group out there solely committed to electing conservative women,” Packer said.

Finding women to run is hard enough — but finding a diverse group of women is even more difficult.

The closest the Senate has come to the 2012 wave of newly elected women was during the year of the woman in 1992 when Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were elected. That year they joined Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) to create a celebrated power team of women who have been deeply connected ever since. Three of the four are still in Congress and have spent their careers establishing themselves as the most powerful women at the top of some of the most influential committees.

Murray, who campaigned as the “mom in tennis shoes” during race in 1992, is the only woman in the top ranks of Senate leadership. Feinstein is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Boxer is the leading Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Both Boxer and Mikulski are retiring this year — in Boxer’s case, it’s a certainty a woman will replace her, but in Maryland, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) beat Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D) in the primary, despite massive help for Edwards from Emily’s List.

Murray was also the architect of the push to make sure women dominated the 2013 Senate class as the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“I would say if I hadn’t been DSCC chair, many of [the women who were elected] would have been told, ‘You can’t do this,’” Murray said during an interview in June. “I felt very strongly my job was for them to hear that they can do it, that there will be help and support for them and this is a great opportunity.”

Murray said she was lucky in that most of the female candidates that year initiated their campaigns rather than needing to be persuaded. All four Democrats — Baldwin, Heitkamp, Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — had been primed for their campaigns for years. Hirono, Baldwin and Heitkamp had all run for statewide office in the past, and Warren was a national figure who led the panel that oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the wake of the Great Recession.

“Interestingly in that year, many of them came to us,” Murray said. “There were really strong women willing to run.”

But even then, the female candidates had a lot of questions. Primarily, they asked how they would raise enough money to be competitive, how they would master a wide variety of national issues and what would happen to their families in a campaign.

Heitkamp was the kind of candidate Senate Democrats had been chasing for years. She had already run for statewide office several times before bidding for the Senate. She won a race for state attorney general, lost her 2000 gubernatorial bid and battled breast cancer. By the time she ran for Senate, Heitkamp was convinced that she couldn’t be beat up any more.

“It is tougher for women to get elected to executive positions,” Heitkamp said.

Like Heitkamp, Hirono ran for governor and lost. By the time the Senate seat opened up, she decided she wanted to run but was worried about raising the money it takes to win.

“You have to be a risk-taker,” Hirono said. “The decision to run for Senate was daunting.”

Read more:

White House women want to be in the room where it happens

Karen Bass says that in politics, it’s men who are the emotional ones

Loretta Lynch says women face ‘risk of not being seen.’ She speaks from experience.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that it takes an average of seven asks to convince a woman to run for office. The post has been updated to reflect more recent data.