For GOP women, 2010 may not be their year

As Sarah Palin warns the country to make way for a “stampede of pink elephants” and conservative women grab barrier-breaking victories, many have dubbed 2010 the “Year of the Republican Woman.”

The label seems especially apt in California, where two women top the Republican Party’s ticket. In South Carolina, a Republican may become the first woman to hold the governor’s office. In New Mexico and Nevada, women won hard-fought primaries to become the party’s choices for governor and Senate.

But the broader landscape shows a different picture. Despite a handful of high-profile successes, Republican women continue to struggle in a party that has long seen them take a supporting role.

A record number of Republican women filed to run for Congress this year, but GOP women are not on pace to break the 2004 record for primary victories, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

So far, fewer women have won Republican primaries for the House, which has the largest concentration of candidates, than at this point four years ago. A record-breaking primary season in races for Senate and governors’ offices is more likely, but far from assured.

“We’ve certainly seen more Republican women than before willing to throw their hats in the ring,” said Debbie Walsh, director at the Rutgers center. “But I don’t know if this is going to take us to a record number of Republican women running in November. You’d need a lot of women to win in the remaining primaries.”

Walsh’s group tracks data on the number of female contenders from both parties. The center counts 144 Republican women in congressional primary races this year, easily besting the previous high of 104 in 1994. The number could grow as some states still allow candidates to file.

Despite the bumper crop of candidates, only 23 women have won a Republican primary for the House so far this year, while nearly twice as many have lost. At this point in 2008, the number of winners was 20. In 2006, it was 25. Both years resulted in totals well below the record 53 GOP female House candidates in 2004.

Like in 1994, the surge of female candidates this year has coincided with an increase in enthusiasm among Republicans in general. GOP primaries across the country have been crowded events, with more candidates — many of them conservatives inspired by the “tea party” movement — eager to take on incumbents.

Advocates for conservative women say there are many factors driving the increase in candidates, including a coordinated recruitment effort, a national role model in Palin — the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket — and a continual shift in the role women play in public life.

“Women are taking more of an interest in the political arena,” said Sue Lynch, president of the National Federation of Republican Women.

But Lynch and others acknowledge they have a lot of ground to make up.

Women make up only about 10% of the Republicans running for the House this year, and their numbers still trail those of Democratic women. Lynch attributes the lag to a lack of recruitment.

“In the past, it has always been if a candidate pops up, OK, great,” she said. “Now we’re asking women. I don’t think anyone had ever asked.”

Recruiting women to run is one thing, but recruiting a successful candidate is another. Among the key predictors of success is experience in public life — not something many first-time candidates and political newcomers bring to the table.

“Republican women in the past have been real busy, very predominantly, raising families. So they’ve been slower to get into the credentialing process of becoming candidates,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that supports antiabortion candidates, primarily women. “Things are changing. That credentialing has happened and now there’s a big wide opening for the Republican women to walk through.”

A notably diverse group of women has walked through that door this year.

In California, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina won the party’s nomination for governor and Senate, respectively, with corporate credentials — a path Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon is looking to follow.

In South Carolina, Nikki Haley took a more traditional route through the state Legislature, as did Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle. In New Mexico, the Republican candidate for governor, Susana Martinez, is a district attorney who bills herself as tough on public corruption.

Whitman and McMahon support abortion rights, a surprising exception, Walsh said.

“The question in most races is often: Is the woman conservative enough to make it through a Republican primary?” Walsh said. “That’s been a challenge of Republican women — they tend to be more moderate than the primary voters.”

Many of this year’s winners have benefited from the Susan B. Anthony List, which plans to spend $6 million in the midterm elections.

The group has fashioned itself as a sort of conservative answer to Emily’s List, which has long recruited, trained and funded Democratic female candidates. Openly borrowing from language rarely associated with Republican politics, Dannenfelser said she sees a “sisterhood” of conservative women.

Indeed, some say Republican women have lagged behind their Democratic counterparts because they have been shy about openly banding together — an approach sometimes derided as identity politics.

“I would like to see more women, but I want to see women who are pro-life conservatives and believe in the 2nd Amendment. If a man comes along and he is more conservative, then that’s who I’d support,” said Cecile Bledsoe, a state senator in Arkansas who recently lost her bid for the House in a Republican primary runoff. “I don’t want this to be about gender.”

Lynch, of the National Federation of Republican Woman, said her group encourages women to rely on other women for support. She also teaches them about the first rule of politics.

“A lot of the time you don’t win the first time out of the box,” she said.