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‘Crisis level’: Republican women sound warning after election losses

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) speaks ahead of President Trump’s signing of a $716 billion defense policy bill named for John McCain at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Aug. 13. (Hans Pennink/AP)

Republicans lost the House in November as droves of female voters spurned the party, a reflection of the gaping gender gap. The election devastated the GOP’s already meager group of congresswomen. Almost none of the political survivors will hold positions of power in Congress next year.

Republican women recognize this is a serious problem. It’s unclear whether GOP men agree.

“It’s very painful,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), who championed female candidates for a decade as the only woman in Republican leadership. “We need to make sure that we are growing our ranks.”

The stark contrast between the parties on gender will be evident when the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3.

More women were elected in this year's election than any point in U.S. history. But how close is Congress to parity? (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Mikayla Whitmore/The Washington Post)

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is poised to reclaim the speaker’s gavel as 36 women join her caucus. But House Republicans, who have already elected men to their top two posts, will see their group of women reduced by almost half to just 13, with West Virginia’s Carol Miller the lone GOP woman in the freshman class.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said the number of Republican women in the House has fallen to “crisis level.”

“Women are a majority of voters in our country, and the GOP must do more to ensure our conference represents their views,” said Stefanik, who announced plans this month to help Republican women in their primaries in 2020.

The GOP’s poor performance with women this election cycle has exposed sensitive fault lines within the party over identity politics and how to win elections.

Newly-elected Democrats preview the 116th Congress (Video: Priya Mathew/Washington Post Live)

Republican leaders often hedge on whether recruiting female candidates should be a top priority, saying they want who­ever is most qualified. The need for more female lawmakers to better reflect the country — or at least to win votes from more women — has not been a given for all party members.

President Trump’s position as head of the party has not helped. His sexual boasts and vulgar comments about women such as former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels were seen as fueling this cycle’s gender gap and Republicans’ punishing defeat with female voters in the nation’s suburbs.

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and allegations against him of sexual misconduct during his teen years — claims he denied — further galvanized female voters.

According to exit polls, the gender gap was 12 percentage points in the midterm elections as female voters favored Democrats over Republicans. The last time women voted for Democrats by anywhere near that margin was 1982, when the gap was 17 points.

House GOP women confront a political crisis — their party is mostly men

The GOP’s problem with women could worsen as a number of female Democrats run for president in 2020 and newcomers like Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) become standard-bearers for the party.

“This is something we’ve got to come to grips with,” former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the 2018 gender gap.

“If you look at the post-election analysis and polling, you’d have to be pretty blind not to see the problem,” Cole said. “We’re maximizing rural voters, we’re maximizing white male voters, particularly white males without a college education. Those are all great to have, but they’re not enough to be a majority in the House.”

Disgust with Trump has turned some female Republican legislators into Democrats.

In Kansas last week, state Sen. Barbara Bollier left the GOP after more than four decades, citing Trump’s vulgar comments about women and issues such as the Medicaid expansion and reproductive health.

Bollier said she could no longer “stand up and say, ‘It’s fine to blindly support Trump Republicanism.’ ”

After changing parties, “now I can sleep better — it was a huge moral thing,” she said.

As another sign of the gender divide, Republican women will be limited in congressional leadership roles next year.

In the House, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) replaced McMorris Rodgers as the Republican Conference chair — and the leadership team’s only woman — last month, while Rep. Kay Granger (Texas) will be the only woman to serve as ranking Republican on a committee. The Democrats will have four female committee chairs and a number of women on their leadership roster, including Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Tensions over the lack of women in GOP leadership flared last week amid reports that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had expressed a preference for Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.) to lead the NRCC over Rep. Ann Wagner (Mo.) as she prepared to mount a bid for the post.

McCarthy denied discouraging Wagner; she said she understood from the Republican leader that he “had a different plan.”

“I respect that,” Wagner said Wednesday on Fox News. “And I decided, you know what, I’m not going to put my name in nomination. I want to be part of the team.” Emmer became the NRCC chairman.

Fox News host Martha MacCallum asked Wagner whether GOP men “get it” when it comes to the party’s problems with women.

“They need to get it, or we won’t have the majority again,” Wagner said.

Stefanik, the party’s youngest woman in Congress, also faced pushback this month when she said that she would “play in primaries” on behalf of Republican women.

“If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right . . . But I think that’s a mistake,” Emmer told Roll Call in an interview.

“It shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion — and then we’re going to play in the primary,” he said.

Stefanik, who helped increase the number of GOP female candidates this cycle as the NRCC’s chair of recruitment, replied on Twitter.

“I will continue speaking out abt the crisis level of GOP women in Congress & will try to lead and change that by supporting strong GOP women candidates through my leadership PAC,” she wrote. “But NEWSFLASH — I wasn’t asking for permission.”

Outgoing Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said she fully supports Stefanik’s plan to support women in Republican primaries.

“Unless you get them out of the primaries, they can’t win a general,” Black said. “And women do need to be asked. That’s the difference between a guy and a gal. The guys just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this,’ and the women need to be encouraged.”

Stefanik is now circulating a letter urging Emmer and the NRCC to assess what went wrong this election cycle, including with female voters.

Emmer responded positively.

“I fully support what Elise’s letter is asking and her efforts because it’s going to make our conference better. We are on the same team, we want to find out what went wrong, correct it, and win the majority in 2020,” he said Friday in a statement.

House Republicans elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy party leader

In the Senate, Republicans added Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) to the leadership as GOP conference vice chair. The party has not formally chosen its committee chairs for next term, though Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) are expected to continue leading the Energy and Natural Resources, and Aging panels, respectively. On five Senate committees, the top Democrat will be a woman.

There were some positive signs for GOP women in the Senate. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) will replace Sen. Bob Corker next year and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.) won a race to serve out the rest of her predecessor’s term, becoming the first woman elected to Congress from her state.

Still, GOP women in the upper chamber have never held a rank higher than conference chair.

“We don’t see women in leadership, which is something that needs to happen if people are going to believe you’re serious,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican former governor of New Jersey.

Whitman predicted the GOP will “largely become irrelevant” if it doesn’t start appealing to more women. The party is “not only ignoring” women, she said — “they’re aggressively looking the other way.”

“We know that women are better than 50 percent of the voting population. So, to ignore them is a huge mistake,” she said.

Former congresswoman Mary Bono (R-Calif.), who left Congress in 2013, said Republican leaders often fail to give women opportunities to raise their profiles on Capitol Hill.

On that score, she said, “we are our own worst enemies.”

“We tried to address this five years ago, six years ago,” said Bono, who founded the Republican Women’s Policy Committee in 2012 to help GOP women present a unified voice to leadership. “The election results have proved that we’re just not connecting.”

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) won a full term in November; she won the right to serve out the remainder of her predecessor’s term.

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