OTHER VOICES: Michelle Cottle, The New York Times

Reposted from the Times edition of December 12, 2018.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK, one of the few Republican women in Congress, fights the male status quo.  Her efforts are highlighted by the fact that the Michigan GOP dominated legislature is attempting to curtail the executive authority of the state’s three top elected officials – all Democratic women.

Representative Elise Stefanik considers last month’s midterm elections a “watershed moment” — and not in a good way.

Ms. Stefanik, a Republican from upstate New York, is sick of her party losing female members. In the new Congress, the number of Republican women in the House will plummet to 13 from 23. That’s the lowest in more than two decades, even as a majority of the incoming Democrats in the House takeover are women. Republican women also lost significant ground in state races. As for voter support, 59 percent of women went Democratic, and the overall gender gap hit a whopping 23 points.

This meltdown should be a “wake-up call” for every member of her party, said Ms. Stefanik in a phone interview. While the reasons for Republicans’ lady troubles are many and varied, the dearth of women’s voices at the table makes it all the more unlikely that the situation will improve.

When Ms. Stefanik, at 34 one of the youngest members of her conference, pushed the issue at a recent meeting, her colleagues — about 90 percent of whom are men — displayed little motivation to address it. “I don’t think there has been enough introspection,” she said.

More troubling was the total absence of ideas for tackling the problem: “I wanted a specific strategy for how we do better to ensure that the conference reflects the American public.”

And so Ms. Stefanik decided to take action herself. She has begun touting a new crusade to get more Republican women elected to Congress by having her leadership PAC “play big” inprimary races. Last cycle, as head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee — the first woman to hold that position — she drafted around 100 female candidates for the midterms, only to see many of them fall in the primaries. The N.R.C.C. has a policy of not playing favorites in primary races. But, citing her own experience as a first-time candidate in 2014, Ms. Stefanik stressed that early support is vital in what can be an “overwhelming” process. “This needs to be a real priority,” she said.

Ms. Stefanik’s new project may seem like an uncontroversial step — a no-brainer. Except that the Republican Party has always been skittish, derisive even, about prioritizing female candidates, sniffily claiming to reject identity politics in favor of backing the “best candidate” without regard to gender or race.

This means that, going forward, Ms. Stefanik will be battling not only a fired-up Democratic opposition, but also deeply entrenched elements within her own party.

Sure enough, upon announcing her effort, Ms. Stefanik promptly faced pushback from the N.R.C.C.

Representative Tom Emmer, the committee’s new chairman, pronounced her plan “a mistake,” telling Roll Call, “It shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion — and then we’re going to play in the primary.”

The idea that the Republican Party under President Trump doesn’t indulge in identity politics is laughable. In addition to fanning racial grievance, Mr. Trump has aggressively pitched himself as a defender of Traditional Manhoodagainst feminists and #MeToo advocates, reflexively defending accused predators and lamenting how scary it is to be a young man these days.

Mr. Emmer’s comments, in fact, struck some Republican women as Exhibit A of how a shameful number of men in their party still don’t grasp the gravity of the situation. “Totally tone deaf,” lamented one strategist. “Antagonistic when he didn’t need to be.”

According to Andrea Bozek, the spokeswoman for Winning For Women, a super PAC aimed at getting more Republican women elected, “Someone has to be pushing the panic button — we’re at code red.” If women “don’t see themselves” and “don’t feel like they have a voice” in the party, she warned, “those numbers are going to dwindle” even further.

There’s no reason the party can’t take a stand on this, agreed Jean Card, a communications strategist active in Republican politics. “How about: Men and women are different and do approach tasks differently and do approach life differently? That’s a Republican value.”

Ms. Stefanik finds the whole debate over identity politics “outdated.”

“I’m from a different generation,” she said. “I really leaned into talking about the fact that I am a young woman.” At campaign events, she would boast that she “wasn’t what most people picture when they picture a traditional Republican candidate.”

She also aimed to “talk about every issue as a women’s issue.” As an example, she cited medical-device manufacturing, a field that employs a large number of women in her district but doesn’t exactly qualify as a traditional women’s issue. “Some colleagues would say that’s identity politics,” she said. “I think it’s a smarter, more personalized way of communicating.”

Of course, the Republican refrain that “all issues are women’s issues” is often used to shift discussion away from policy areas that have been helping Democrats expand the parties’ gender gap — areas like as health care, gun safety, reproductive rights and this president’s irrepressible sexism. Liz Cheney, the House Republicans’ newly elected chairwoman, hit this theme soon after the midterms, denouncing the Democrats’ approach to wooing women as “offensive” and “paternalistic.”

Another way to characterize it might be “highly effective.”

Ms. Stefanik isn’t looking to have a public brawl over ideology. She’s simply pushing to get more women a seat at her party’s table. Who’s to say where things could go from there?

“Elise Stefanik is no dummy,” said Ms. Card. “She knows that a political party is reformed in the primaries. That’s what’s going on here.”

Which may explain why some of Ms. Stefanik’s male colleagues don’t seem all that enthusiastic about her plans.


Categories: Issues, National

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