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A little-watched congressional race in North Carolina has become a referendum on women’s future in the Republican Party.
On Tuesday, pediatrician Joan Perry faces off against Greg Murphy in a Republican runoff for the state’s 3rd Congressional District. While members of the House Freedom Caucus have campaigned for Murphy, also a doctor, Perry is being bolstered by a different kind of firepower: political action committees determined to replenish Congress’ ranks of GOP women.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like a case study for us,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, spokesperson for Winning for Women, which aims to elect right-of-center women. “We got her to the runoff, which is a big deal. She had little name ID — political outsider up against a state rep. And I think it will speak volumes if at the end of the day Republicans vote for a woman.”
The much-heralded “pink wave” of the 2018 midterms was decidedly blue, thanks to the scores of Democratic women who ran for office in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. Last year, just over half of Democratic women running for the U.S. House won their primary contests. Thirty-five non-incumbent women ultimately won seats in the House, bringing the number of women in Congress up to a historic 102.
On the other hand, only 43% of Republican women won their primaries, according to data from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. And the number of Republican congresswomen in the House fell from 23 to just 13. All but one were incumbents.
Now, Republican women are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again in 2020. Their solution: Play in primaries, and play hard.
“We’ve seen historically that primaries tend to be sort of an unintentional filter for women candidates,” Rebecca Schuller, executive director of Winning for Women, told VICE News earlier this summer. “And that is a driving factor of how we are looking to allocate our resources this year.”
"In a lot of ways, it’s like a case study for us."
Through its super PAC — the only Republican one dedicated solely to electing women — Winning for Women has spent about $700,000 supporting Perry, who finished second in an initial April race of 17 candidates. Perry has also secured endorsements and donations from other conservative women’s groups, like Maggie’s List; the Value in Electing Women PAC; and E-PAC, a leadership organization led by rising star Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York.
“This new approach in terms of creating the super PAC, getting in in primaries, going negative if we have to, was a lesson learned following the midterms,” Perez-Cubas said, in a reference to Winning for Women’s recent six-figure buy in support of a TV spot slamming “liberal Greg Murphy” for praising the Affordable Care Act. The spot declared, “We can’t trust him to support Trump.”
“Since it’s a special election, it was very much the first opportunity for us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been talking about this problem,” Perez-Cubas went on. “We’ve been discussing and analyzing this problem. Now we’re gonna do something about it.’”
Because the North Carolina 3rd is safely red, Perry will likely head to Congress if she wins on Tuesday. As of mid-June, she’d raised about $374,000, Federal Election Commission records show; Murphy had raised $544,000.
So far this year, Winning for Women has spoken with more than 60 women interested in running for office, which Schuller called a “record” for the group, launched in late 2017. The organization hopes to help elect 20 Republican women to the House in 2020, and Perry is hopefully just the “first of many,” as Perez-Cubas put it.
And there are early signs the strategy is working: In late June 2017, Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics counted only 37 Republican women as potential candidates in the midterms. This year, the organization lists 60 women.
It’s too soon to tell if 2020 will make another so-called “Year of the Woman,” though. The number of Democratic women who hope to run this election cycle has dipped slightly, compared to 2017 — though they still outnumber Republicans nearly one to three. In June 2017, 190 Democratic women were running or likely to run. This year, the Center has so far counted 178 current or potential Democratic women candidates.
“In the last election, there were so many new members elected on the Democratic side, many of them from districts that they flipped from red to blue,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “Those districts are the most vulnerable, and it seems as though now quite a few women are saying they want to go after those brand-new Democrats.”
Overall, voters tend to believe that Republican women are more moderate. That’s particularly a problem for women in Republican primaries, where voters tend to be more conservative than their general-election counterparts.
Rina Shah, a conservative strategist and a co-founder of the Women’s Public Leadership Network, believes that Republican political action committees need to start handing out money to women’s campaigns by mid-2019, long before filing deadlines arrive.
“These women need these checks from these PACs when they’re organizing their campaign committees,” she said. “A lot of campaigns fail before they’re out of the gate.”
Leaning into “identity politics”
Pouring money into women’s campaigns in primaries has been a liberal tradition for decades, thanks to the ultra-powerful EMILY’s List, which champions Democratic women who support abortion rights. (The group’s commitment to donating to women’s campaigns early is baked into the group’s acronym, which stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” — it makes the dough rise.) During the 2018 midterms, EMILY’s List spent over $110 million and helped flip more than 20 House seats. It was enough to deliver the House majority to Democrats.
There is no conservative alter ego of EMILY’s List. The GOP has long been reluctant to single out and support women because of so-called “identity politics,” the belief that women — and other marginalized people — have unique experiences that can shape their policies. A 2018 Pew survey found that 79% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents believe there are too few women in high political office, but just 33% of people on the Republican side of the political spectrum said the same.
In April 2018, with the midterms well underway, former House Speaker Paul Ryan even openly slammed the idea of identity politics.
“Identity politics, practiced on both the right and the left, which tries to exploit divisions between people — it is now being practiced with 21st century technology to devastating effect,” he told NBC. “And I think that is one of the things that contributes to the polarization that we’re experiencing in America.”
The two parties also seem to take a fundamentally different view of the barriers facing women in politics. In that same Pew survey, 30% of conservatives said that they believe gender discrimination kept more women from high office. Sixty-four percent of liberals said the same.
As the recruitment chair for the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), Elise Stefanik helped convince more than 100 women to run for office in 2018. Only one, West Virginian Carol Miller, won a seat to Congress.
After the midterms, Stefanik gave up her role on the House GOP’s campaign arm. She then relaunched E-PAC to recruit and support women for primaries, which the NRCC doesn’t participate in. The lack of Republican women in Congress, she tweeted, had reached a “crisis level.”
Stefanik’s commitment to helping women survive primaries arose out of her own experience as a young, female politician, E-PAC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said.
“She was a first-time candidate. She was 28 years old when she first started running. And she was facing an uphill battle, also in the primary, with a male self-funder,” Anderson said. “But she did get some outside support, a couple of female members of Congress supported her, and that early money was really critical for her pre-primary.”
E-PAC has now given the maximum amount of money to about 20 candidates, including Perry — twice, according to Anderson. To be eligible for E-PAC support, candidates must raise at least $250,000 in their first quarter of running and need to have some kind of campaign team in place. Unlike EMILY’s List, there is no litmus test when it comes to abortion rights; if a woman is conservative and fits her district, E-PAC will support her.
The readiness of women like Stefanik to call out the importance of primaries (and, sometimes, her male colleagues) could very well signal a shift in the party’s approach to women, Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, told VICE News this summer.
“A lot of these women have thought that before, but they’ve been more public in their willingness to state that,” Dittmar said. But, she added, “I don’t know that there’s a shift at the top level of the leadership of the party or among the electorate.”
Cover image: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., right, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 in Washington during the opening session of the 116th Congress.. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)