'The big tent has been shrinking': Why these Republicans are pushing for more women in office

At a time when there's a flood of women running for U.S. Congress, a stark contrast remains between Democrats and Republicans.

Women are running for Congress under the GOP — but on a much smaller scale than their Democratic counterparts

According to some experts, the Republican Party hasn't made as much of a concerted effort as the Democrats when it comes to recruiting and retaining female candidates. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

A younger Carol O'Brien never imagined running for office; she felt that every person who didn't cast a vote for her would be like "someone not liking you."

Today, sitting in her kitchen in Ohio, the Delaware County prosecutor and first-time Republican candidate says she's "gotten past that."

O'Brien is one of nine people running in the upcoming primary, looking to replace former Rep. Pat Tiberi. The crowded Republican race will see her run against one other woman — and seven men — before a special election in August.

The 59-year-old knew campaigning as a woman would be tough. But she says she's been surprised by just how big a role her gender has played on the campaign trail.

"When I go out and talk to people, and there's follow up … the word is that I'm very quiet. I've never been quiet in my whole life," she said. "In the same time in the conversation, there'll be a comment that I'm a bit pushy."

Carol O'Brien, 59, is a Delaware County prosecutor with 30 years' experience who is seeking the Republican nomination for the first time in Ohio's 12th congressional district. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

People have also told O'Brien she's the best candidate "on paper" — an assessment that sparks some frustration.

"My response is, 'No, no, no. I'm just the best candidate. You know everything in that resume you've read, I've done,'" she said.

While O'Brien imagines all women running for office face similar challenges, she believes it's an especially uphill battle for Republican women at the primary level.

"There's a bigger hurdle to jump as a female to get the money," she said. "They want to make sure you're a viable candidate, that you're a good candidate and you can do the job. And my position is: look at my resume and see what I've done."

'Can't just be a male white party forever'

Her campaign manager, Jai Chabria, has spent two decades working in Ohio politics, including for Republican Gov. John Kasich. But O'Brien marks the first time he's worked with a female candidate.

He joined O'Brien's camp because he thinks the party needs to elect more women, and O'Brien's profile — tough prosecutor, military parent and strong conservative — seemed ideal.

Yet Chabria has also been surprised by how tough it is to secure support and donations. A lot of people say they want to see more Republican women elected, he said, but "when push comes to shove, I think then they go back to what's been comfortable."

"You can't just be a male white party forever," said Chabria.

The Republican Party added one more woman to its ranks this past week, when Debbie Lesko narrowly beat her Democratic challenger in Arizona's 8th congressional district — a seat that would never been considered at risk in any other year. 

Lesko won the special election in the district by six percentage points; Donald Trump had handily captured it by 21 points in 2016. 

Out of the 107 women currently elected to U.S. Congress, 78 are Democrats while 29 are Republicans. It's a gap that could increase in the 2018 midterm elections.

In a response to the Trump presidency, left-leaning women have signed up to run for office in numbers that have not been matched by Republicans.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, 13 Republican women are running for the U.S. Senate in 2018, compared to 20 Democrats.

The race for House seats is even more divided: while 83 women are running for the Republicans, 247 are running for the Democrats.

Michele Swers, a congressional expert and professor at Georgetown University, describes the gap in female representation between the two parties as a mystery of American politics.

One reason it may be happening, she says, is because the Democrats have made a concerted effort to recruit and support female candidates.

"Among Democrats, there is more support for this idea that you need to expand the diversity of the types of people that get elected," said Swers.

Going grassroots

The biggest example of that is Emily's List, an organization founded in 1985 around the issue of access to abortion.

The group — whose name is an acronym for "early money is like yeast" — says it has raised more than $500 million for pro-choice, female Democratic candidates, and has helped elect 100 women to the House of Representatives, 23 women to the Senate and supported 12 successful gubernatorial campaigns.

There is no comparable right-leaning organization, Swers says.

"The donors in the Republican Party, they don't see gender. They want commitment to conservative ideology. And so they don't care about the gender of the candidate," she said.

In a response to Donald Trump's presidency, left-leaning women have signed up to run for office in numbers that have not been matched by the Republicans. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

There are efforts underway to change that.

Winning for Women was launched last year to be a conservative counterweight to Emily's List. Donors reportedly include Rebekah Mercer, who, with her father Robert, was a key supporter of Trump's presidential campaign, and billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In California, two moderate Republicans, Martha Ehmann Conte and Jennifer Fonstad, have launched Women Run, with the goal of supporting centre-right candidates in an effort to balance the party's far-right voices.

Unfortunately, the left sort of own the women's empowerment movement.- Karin Agness Lips, founder of NeW

"The big tent of the Republican Party has been shrinking and has not been welcoming to women and minorities," Ehmann Conte told potential donors last February, speaking at the organization's launch party in San Francisco.  

Ehmann Conte believes women are more collaborative — and more willing to work across the aisle. "We'd like to bring more of that, so we can have our government working again," she said.

There are also efforts to attract younger conservative women to public life.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Convention in February, a bright pink booth stood out in a sea of red, white and blue. Fashionably dressed women lined up to take their pictures in front of a sign: "This is what a conservative looks like."

Students talk at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 23, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The booth belonged to the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), which was started in 2004 by Karin Agness Lips as a conservative book club at the University of Virginia. The expanded organization now has chapters at 40 campuses across the United States.

It can be tough to find like-minded women on college campuses, says Agness Lips, where women's groups are often very liberal.

"Unfortunately, the left sort of own the women's empowerment movement," she said. "And they've been really bad about being diverse when it comes to intellectual issues, when it comes to policy."

When a reporter from her university's feminist magazine came to one of NeW's first meetings, Agness Lips said the group was featured on its cover — but unflatteringly.

"There was this woman who was baking cookies and had a machine connected to her mid-section, popping out nine babies," she recalls. "That's the stereotype [conservative women] have to contend with."

Karin Agness Lips says she founded her group, the Network of Enlightened Women, with an aim of providing a diversity of political voices on college campuses, which often lean liberal. (Marie Claudet/CBC)

Back in Ohio, campaign manager Chabria believes that despite a steep climb, O'Brien may secure some votes simply because of all of the momentum around female candidates in 2018.

"I think there will be some benefit — but it should be a bigger benefit," he said.

O'Brien has already netted some significant endorsements in Ohio's 12th congressional district, including that of the Delaware County Republican Party and the Delaware County Sheriff.

She also has young Republicans from Ohio Wesleyan University volunteering for her.

And with just a couple of weeks left to go in the primary, O'Brien is energized.

"We need people to walk, knock on doors, pass out [literature], tell people how wonderful I am," she recently told supporters, speaking in the backroom of a pizza restaurant.  

"It's taken me 59 years to talk about the good things I do."

About the Author

Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior Washington editor

Lyndsay Duncombe is the senior Washington editor at CBC News. She co-ordinates coverage of U.S. politics for all platforms and has worked as a producer, reporter and anchor at CBC since 2001.