A broad network of conservative operatives and Republican donors has been working the past year to build a conservative counterweight to EMILY’s List, the powerhouse organization that backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.
The new effort, dubbed Winning for Women, quietly began soliciting members and funneling support to candidates about six weeks ago. The group now includes nearly 30,000 people who have provided their names and email addresses online, though it doesn’t yet have a website and hasn’t officially launched.
Winning for Women arose from a series of joint fundraising committees set up over the past two cycles and supported by some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors, including Linda McMahon, Betsy DeVos, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son, Todd, and the hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. The group hopes to swell its ranks to 400,000 by November 2018, according to a source familiar with the organization’s plans.
The joint fundraising committees delivered millions to female Republican candidates including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who in 2014 became the youngest woman elected to Congress, and Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force Colonel who was the first American woman to fly combat operations.
The organization is seeking to address the yawning gap between the number of GOP women and the number of Democratic women in office. Among female lawmakers on the federal level, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about three to one. Of the 21 female senators now serving, 16 are Democrats while just five are Republicans. In the House, there are 84 female representatives — 62 Democrats and 22 Republicans.
Some of the GOP’s most high-profile operatives are participating in the effort to narrow that chasm. The group is being guided by Lisa Gable, a conservative movement and technology industry veteran. Among its members are some of the most high-profile women in the conservative movement and Republican politics: former White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh; Lisa Nelson, the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Counsel; former New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte; and former National Republican Congressional Committee executive director executive director Liesl Hickey.
One of the engines behind the effort is the Republican activist and fundraiser Annie Dickerson, a former deputy finance director for George W. Bush with close ties to Singer. She was invited by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel to discuss the project with donors and activists at the committee’s summer meeting in Nashville.
For years, Democrats have appealed to women by characterizing issues like abortion and access to contraceptives as matters of women’s rights. Talk of a Republican “war on women” became a Democratic refrain in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 election cycles.
Democratic female candidates have been boosted by organizations like EMILY’s List, which spent over $90 million on their behalf in 2016. A Democratic woman had never been elected to the Senate before the group’s founding in 1985. Two years later, Barbara Mikulski became the first, with EMILY’s List support.
Today, EMILY’s List boasts over 5 million members, and some Democrats are skeptical Republicans can compete on their terrain.
“As long as the Republican Party continues to advance an agenda that hurts women, they will have trouble recruiting and electing women candidates for office,” said EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock.
But some conservative women are frustrated by Democrats’ overt appeals to women by branding issues like abortion — which substantial numbers of women oppose — as issues of women’s rights.
“I think a lot of women on the center-right or the right feel that there’s just a lot of identity politics and that they aren’t necessarily represented,” said Gerrit Lansing, a former RNC digital guru who is directing the Winning for Women’s online advertising efforts.
The new organization will have a connected federal PAC to harness small-dollar donors, with Tennessee Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn likely to be one of the primary recipients of the bundling effort. The PAC will employ tactics that EMILY’s List and other groups have used to become fundraising juggernauts.
Winning for Women expects to endorse a slate of prospective candidates in 2018, including Carla Nelson, a state senator running for a House seat in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District; Tiffany Shedd, an attorney running in Arizona’s 1st District; and South Dakota secretary of state Shantel Krebs, who is running for the state’s sole congressional seat. It will also back incumbent Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Martha Roby (R-Ala.), and Karen Handel (R-Ga.).