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GOP attacks its female deficit in Congress

By Laurie Ure and Dana Bash, CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republicans launch drive to attract women candidates for Congress
  • Women comprise 8% of Republican House caucus; 29% of Democratic membership
  • Martha McSally, a fighter pilot who flew combat patrols, is running for Gabby Giffords' old seat
  • Top Democrat recruiter says her party doesn't need special project to attract women

Washington (CNN) -- If you're a Republican woman, the GOP wants you. To run for Congress, that is.

The Grand Old Party holds a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Yet of 234 Republican members, only 19 are women.

In an effort to boost that number, the House Republican campaign committee is launching "Project GROW," a program largely led by the party's female members designed to bring more women into the fold.

CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash spoke exclusively with three sitting House Republican female members spearheading the effort, and one GOP woman hoping to score a House seat.

To a person, they recognize that at the very least, Republicans have an image problem-- especially after studying the results of the 2012 election.

According to CNN's 2012 exit polls, 55 percent of women voted for Barack Obama, a stark leap over the 44 percent who voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. And Democrats made gains in both the Senate and the House.

"We saw that as Republicans, even though we were talking about the issues that affected America, women across this country felt we were not connecting with them," Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-North Carolina) said.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri), serving her first congressional term, said she and her colleagues need to talk to women "in a way that's going to make their life better and easier."

"You know, I told my colleagues close your eyes, say that you're speaking to that 37-year-old single mother of two who's trying to make it to the 15th and the 30th of the month," said Wagner. "What do we have to offer her? How do we make her life easier, better, more manageable? These are the kind of messaging things we need to do and I think we've got ... real opportunities here, both to motivate women in the electorate, but also to motivate women to run for public office."

Indeed, women make up a mere 8% of the Republican House caucus. House Democratic women comprise a staggering 29%, by comparison.

The Republican women agree it boils down to encouraging more GOP women to run.

Curiously, "women who are going to run for office, they almost need to be asked," Ellmers said. "They need to make sure there's a place for them."

Male GOP members, who don't traditionally seem to need such encouragement, are involved in recruiting women as well.

In fact, Project GROW also involves educating elected Republican men "about connecting with women and doing a better job and going out and meeting with women." Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana) said.

"Women business owners, women volunteer organizations-- just doing a better job connecting with where they are, with things they care about," Brooks said.

Martha McSally, an Air Force fighter pilot who flew combat patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan, is running in a rematch for Gabby Giffords' old seat in Arizona, which she just barely lost to Democrat Ron Barber last year.

She is exactly the kind of political recruit these GOP women say they're looking for.

"The Democrats have been effective in attacking us and branding us in a way that's just not accurate," McSally said.

"So in my race ... my opponent, a white man, was trying to lump me in the war on women, she said, pointing to a Democratic attack line during the 2012 election accusing Republicans of waging a "war against women."

"And here I am a pioneering military woman, the first to fly in command in combat. I sued Donald Rumsfeld for making our servicewomen wear burkas over in Saudi Arabia. I mean, I am not a part of the 'war on women.' I've been fighting for women my whole life," she said.

McSally said she doesn't know why women make up only a small percentage of the GOP caucus.

"I can only say that in my experience, running that when I engage with Republican, independent and Democratic women in my community, and you talk about the issues that matter to them," she said. "If we you connect with them, and we're real, and we show our leadership, we show we're solution oriented."

Meanwhile, the top House Democrat recruiter told CNN her party doesn't need a special project to attract women candidates to run with our party."

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida), the chairman of the Democratic National Committee charged with adding more Democratic members, said Republicans have a "wholly unappealing agenda" that alienates women and discourages them from affiliating themselves with the GOP.

She says Republicans are "wrong" on the economic, healthcare, cultural, and education agendas "that are important to women."

"I think acronyms are nice, but at the end of the day women voters in this country and potential women candidates are going to continue to choose the Democratic party because we value the input and feedback from women, and we're the party that grows leaders," she said.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, who as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is working to elect Democrats to the House, told CNN "The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that they have to work hard to recruit women to run for Congress. All I have to do is answer my phone."

Republicans have their work cut out for them. Project GROW's website says the effort will focus specifically on recruiting, messaging, polling, candidate training, fundraising, a strong digital presence, and other things "to increase female participation."

At the end of the day, Ellmers believes that, despite appearances, women voters largely lean Republican.

"That's why in Project GROW, we're going to be focusing on listening, and recruiting, and engaging and motivating," she said. "Because we want women across this country to be involved in Republican beliefs. We believe most women are conservative."

Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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