Republicans know women will be crucial to winning the presidency – they’re just not clamoring for a woman to be in the White House.
Conservative women gathered here at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference bristled – sometimes vehemently – at the notion that nominating a woman is the party’s best shot at defeating Hillary Clinton.
“They don’t have emotional stability,” said Barbara Adams, 64, of New Orleans. “Look at Hurricane Katrina. We had a female governor and she f’d it up big time. So no.”
Marlena, an executive assistant from Miami who declined to share her last name, said she wants the “best candidate – male or female.”
“I’m not going to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman,” she said. “I’m for equal opportunity, all around.”
The conference, which attracts the GOP’s biggest stars, is dominated by conservative activists and isn’t necessarily indicative of the party’s broader views. But the insistence that gender is a non-factor is striking given the importance that the issue is already playing in the early stages of the 2016 contest.
In a Silicon Valley speech this week, Clinton highlighted a vision focused on women and even applauded actress Patricia Arquette’s push for gender equality at the Oscars.
In 2012, women were critical to President Barack Obama’s victory over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. According to CNN exit polls, 55% of women voted for Obama, compared to 44% for Romney.
In recent years, Democrats seized on off-the-cuff comments – particularly those related to reproductive issues – from tea party-backed male candidates to portray Republicans as waging a “war on women.”
A series of controversial comments from candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock led to a concerted effort from Republican leadership to communicate better with women. In 2013, House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged that some of his male colleagues simply “aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be” when it comes to women’s issues.
Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in the House who’s scheduled to speak at CPAC on Saturday, said the party has made progress in part by elevating more women to positions of leadership.
“Tone matters,” she said. “I’m a mom. I have three kids and I really do think that it’s a perspective that is valuable and needed in politics.”
Many female CPAC attendees argued that Democrats have disingenuously cast Republicans as anti-women.
“I find it very interesting that women consider themselves victims and fall into that trap that the Democrats pulled in the last four to five years that there is a war on women,” said Kay Bacharach, an artist from Fairfax, Virginia.
It’s not just the women who feel this way.
Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, a passionately pro-life tea party favorite, called the Democratic Party’s “war on women” strategy “crap” on the sidelines of CPAC. Asked whether there would be value to having a woman on the party’s ticket in 2016, Gohmert said gender is not a relevant factor.
“One of these days we’re going to get Democrats to stop thinking about the color of skin and the gender,” he said.
The crowded field of possible Republican presidential candidates currently includes just one woman: Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who unsuccessfully ran against California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010.
Fiorina has traveled to early states like Iowa and New Hampshire in recent months, and just this week, her allies announced the formation of a super PAC to back her potential White House campaign.
Asked at CPAC on Thursday how important it is for the GOP to have a female candidate running for president, Fiorina responded that the party needs to represent the country’s diversity.
“Women are now 53% of voters,” she said. “As I like to tell some of my Democratic friends who continue to talk about the war on women, we are not a special interest group – we are the majority of the nation.”
Fiorina also confidently declared that she could be just the person to give Clinton a run for her money.
“If Hillary Clinton had to face me on a debate stage, at the very least, she would have a hitch in her swing,” she said.