Before Leigh Brown ran for a vacant House seat in North Carolina earlier this year, she got plenty of encouragement from Republicans in Washington eager to grow the ranks of GOP women in Congress.
Then Brown jumped into a crowded Republican primary — and the people who had given her hope were nowhere to be found. Among those who disappeared, she said, was Rep. Elise Stefanik, who launched an initiative this year to elect more Republican women.
Brown finished a distant fourth place in the primary this month, losing the GOP nomination to the state senator who sponsored North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” in 2016.
“That’s a little frustrating to have initial conversations and then follow up and be ghosted,” Brown said in an interview with POLITICO. “I put my real estate business on hold. I’ve dinged my own reputation in order to put myself forward as a public servant, and then you find out exactly how lonely it is to run for office.”
Stefanik acknowledged Brown’s account during a brief exchange in the Capitol last week but declined to elaborate.
The Republican Party has ramped up its efforts to recruit female candidates for the 2020 election, following the brutal midterm that decimated the ranks of GOP women. But Brown’s experience highlights an enduring challenge for the party: translating widespread concern about the dearth of women in the House Republican Conference into significant campaign support and, ultimately, victories by female candidates.
GOP consultants and candidates acknowledge their recruitment and resources lag far behind Democrats. And no centralized group exists to provide hiring advice, social media guidance, press training, or messaging tactics to candidates. Democrats, on the other hand, have the behemoth EMILY’s List network, as well as groups focused on recruiting immigrants, women of color, female veterans and more.
“The support structure needs to be more than the idea that you can get some PAC dollars from random PACs out there,” Brown said. “I didn’t know how to hire. I’m an outsider to this.”
Republicans are not blind to the problem. A growing number of outside GOP groups are dedicated to boosting female candidates since the House GOP’s official campaign arm doesn’t play in primaries. “Winning for Women” launched a new super PAC in response to the devastating losses Republicans suffered in 2018.
And after watching her party swear in a 29-member class of House freshmen that included 28 men, Stefanik repurposed her leadership PAC, known as E-PAC, to focus on backing women in primaries. She told POLITICO at the time that “we are at a crisis level for GOP women.”
But neither Stefanik nor Winning for Women supported Brown, who faced nine other Republicans in the North Carolina race — including three other women, each of whom finished with fewer than a thousand votes. The National Association of Realtors threw $1.3 million behind Brown as she presented a more moderate tone than her conservative opponents, and View PAC, a group focused on electing more GOP women since 1997, endorsed her.
Brown also spoke to Winning for Women before she filed and received strong encouragement. But once she announced her candidacy, she never heard from them again. Winning for Women’s super PAC said it has limited resources and stresses candidate viability.
Privately, sources said national groups shied away from the North Carolina race because of the election fraud scandal surrounding the district. The special election was called after a state board found evidence of illegal ballot harvesting in the 2018 election by an operative working for the GOP nominee.
Instead, a number of Washington Republicans, including Stefanik and Winning for Women, have coalesced around a different female candidate in another special North Carolina race this year: Joan Perry.
Perry’s success in an upcoming July 9 runoff will be the first real test of Republicans’ new efforts to propel female candidates through primaries. But Perry begins the race at a disadvantage: She finished with 15 percent of the vote in the April primary, behind the first-place candidate, Greg Murphy, who earned 23 percent.
If Perry fails, it will highlight the limits of Republicans’ cash-only strategy — and amplify the party’s woman problem heading into 2020.
“Donors are taking it seriously. Outside groups are taking this seriously. The party is taking it seriously,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for the Winning for Women Action Fund. “It would be awesome if the first election after the midterms, Republican voters chose a woman. It would send a strong message.”
Indeed, Republican leaders have made replenishing their ranks of female lawmakers a top priority in 2020. The issue could take on even greater urgency if Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, decides to run for an open Senate seat in Wyoming.
The party’s leader, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), has already contributed to New York state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who is running to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Max Rose — even though the rest of the GOP field has yet to take shape.
“McCarthy has definitely been supportive of female candidates. I know that he likes to meet with as many of them as possible, which is a big job,” said Julie Conway, executive director for VIEW PAC.
Of the 13 Republican women left in the House, some have taken it upon themselves to help usher more female candidates into Congress. In addition to Stefanik’s PAC, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) has been getting personally involved in primaries and launched a “Suburban Caucus” this year to craft an economic-driven agenda for female candidates running in suburban swing districts.
“I play in primaries. Some do; some don’t,” said Wagner, who recently wrote a check to Perry and offers the first-time candidate advice, mentorship and encouraging voice mails. “I believe you have to offer them a full-package approach.”
During a recent political meeting near Capitol Hill, GOP leadership updated the caucus on its recruitment efforts and touted the number of female and minority candidates who are interested in running.
Yet according to recent data collected by The Associated Press, just 38 of 172 declared Republican House challengers for the 2020 elections were women, or around 1 in 5. That compares with 84 of 222 declared House Democratic challengers, nearly 2 in 5.
Part of the problem, critics say, is that there is little concert between the groups set up to help Republican women. And they limit where they get involved to vacant, open Republican-leaning seats or swing districts currently held by Democrats — while deliberately shying away from backing challengers to male incumbents.
“Why do you have all these groups working against each other?” asked one longtime female Republican consultant, offered anonymity to discuss internal party dynamics. “Why not all get along and be [like] EMILY’s List — and be recruiting women, mentoring people, electing women?”
The key to getting Republicans to commit to a cohesive effort to boost women candidates isn’t just convincing them that it’s good for the party’s image, but that women will make better candidates in general elections against Democrats, VIEW PAC’s Conway said.
“People need to put their thumbs on the scale during the primary to make the nominee be the person most likely to be able to win in November,” Conway said. “And the Republicans have not done enough of that.”