Photo: Will Waldron
WASHINGTON — Rep. Elise Stefanik extols the positive trajectory of her effort to recruit more women Republican candidates for House seats, telling a recent TV interviewer that she’s been “blown away” by the response of over 140 women interested in running as Republicans in 2020.
“And it’s only May of the off-year,” said Stefanik’s spokeswoman, Madison Anderson.
But events such as Alabama’s enactment of what amounts to a near-total ban on abortion may undercut Stefanik’s goal of adding female candidates for House races.
The Alabama statute, signed into law on Wednesday, bans abortion of all stages except in cases of serious health risk and makes it an felony for doctors to perform them — with lengthy prison sentences to match. The law was designed as a test of the willingness of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.
Republicans already have problems attracting suburban college-educated women, whose votes helped Democrats take back the House after the 2018 election, ending eight years of GOP rule. Although the next national election is 18 months away, the ripples from the Alabama law — and less draconian abortion restrictions in other states — could overwhelm Republicans in terms of women voters and candidate recruitment.
“We’ve already seen a shift among white-collar educated women moving away from Republicans since (the 2016 election of President Donald J.) Trump,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University and scholar at its Center for American Women in Politics. “What it speaks to is the move to the right of the Republican Party on various issues, not just this one.”
The division on abortion is more about party loyalty than gender, Dittmar added. She pointed to a poll by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute showing 60 percent of Republican women believe Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, while 75 percent of Democratic women said the high court got it right.
“That’s an importance nuance,” she said.
Stefanik, 34, easily won re-election to a third term in 2018, which otherwise was strong election for Democrats who swept away vulnerable Republicans in the House including former upstate Representatives John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford.
The number of Republican women in the House dropped from 23 to 13.
Chagrined over the dearth of GOP women and the image of the party as the domain of aging white men, Stefanik decided to direct her political action committee, E-PAC (the “E” stands for Elise), to recruit Republican women candidates and sustain them through the often-bruising primary process.
Republican leaders were careful to back Stefanik. “If you want to be a representative government that reflects America, you need more women (in office),” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, at the E-PAC rollout in January.
Trump’s behavior toward women, including audio that surfaced at the end of the 2016 campaign in which he bragged about groping women, has already been a drag on support for Republicans.
The abortion issue threatens to add weight to that burden.
Stefanik herself has staked out what used to be a fairly standard conservative position on abortion: She opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. And she supports over-the-counter access to birth control covered by insurance.
But as in so many issues, the conservatism of the era of President George W. Bush — in whose White House Stefanik worked as a staffer — has been eclipsed by the ultra-conservatives of the Freedom Caucus in the House and frequently Trump himself. The abortion law in Alabama, a deep-red state for decades, is just one example of a rightward trend within the party.
Stefanik declined to be interviewed for this story. But last week she told a reporter for ABC 22, affiliated with MyChamplainValley.com, that it’s “good for the nation to have more women in elected office and good for both parties,” Stefanik said. “Women get things done. We bring a unique perspective.”
But Democrats and left-leaning activists in the North Country district Stefanik represents have attempted to portray Stefanik as a hard-right true believer in sync with Republican conservatives.
“Rep. Stefanik has voted to defund Planned Parenthood … and gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” said Tedra Cobb, who is running in the Democratic primary to oppose Stefanik in 2020. Stefanik defeated Cobb last year. “She voted against the Violence Against Women Act and has voted against equal pay for equal work three times. She is on the record that she does not support women’s right to make their own reproductive choices.”
Stefanik was a protégé of former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and has generally voted the party line since her arrival on Capitol Hill in 2015. But she has made exceptions, including a vote against the GOP tax bill of 2017 because it reduced the federal deductions for state income and local property taxes.
And earlier this month, she was one of three Republicans to side with Democrats on a bill against Trump’s taking the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.
And she has proved willing to buck the Republican male establishment. When Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the new chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview that Stefanik’s focus on recruiting women was a “mistake,” she tartly responded on Twitter: “NEWSFLASH! I wasn’t asking for permission.”
Published at Sun, 19 May 2019 22:52:00 +0000