WASHINGTON, D.C. - Don’t expect to see an overwhelming influx of female faces following the midterm elections this year. In fact the way the primaries are going, don’t put your money on seeing more than just a few.
The 2012 presidential election saw women voters playing an integral role and both Democrats and Republicans say they’ve made concerted efforts since then to bring women more clearly into their focus, as both eager voters and candidates.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the number of women candidates still in the running for the midterms in November.
“We’ve seen over time, if you really map this data out, in terms of [female] candidates for the last 15 to 20 years you do see gradual increases over time,” said Kelly Dittmar, a research professor at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. “But the point being said, we did see a decrease instead of an increase [of candidates] this year.”
Judging the parties by the numbers at least, it’s a political disaster.
In 2012 there were 334 female candidates who signed up to run in primaries, according to the most recent data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
This year, there were just 277- a 17 percent decrease. And the picture is even less encouraging now that most of the primaries are over. Just 183 female candidates are still in the running, with 471 open seats.
Which party is struggling most to field female candidates? Republicans have historically trailed behind Democrats in terms of female representation and this year is no different. The GOP fielded 110 women candidates in 2014, compared to 167 for the Democrats.
Of course focusing on raw numbers can be misleading.
“We have so many members of Congress in safe congressional seats. You can’t just look at the bottom line number of women running,” said Andrea Bozek at Project Grow, a National Republican Congressional Committee initiative that focuses on female candidates. “There are maybe 40 races in the House that are competitive.”
Nathan Gonzales at the Rothenberg Political Report breaks down why Republicans might be hesitant to ask women to enter competitive races:
“There are 177 congressional districts where President Barack Obama received at least 54 percent of the vote in 2012. Only two of those districts are currently held by Republicans…In fact, recruiting GOP women in these districts might actually hurt the party’s cause.
How can party strategists credibly ask a woman to put her career and family on hold with full knowledge that she will likely lose?”
It’s also hard to deny that a lack of commitment, between both potential candidates and parties, may also be a factor.
“I do think it’s a question of parties talking about prioritization of recruitment to women candidates and what they are actually doing on the ground is the question,” Dittmar said.
Emily’s List is one of the top players in recruiting Democratic-leaning women to run for public office. The private, pro-choice political action committee (PAC) formed in 1985 and offers startup money and mentorship support to demale candidates they deem viable political challengers.
On the right, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) created Project Grow in 2013 to help identify successful female candidates and encourage more women voters. This year it has inducted 20 women into the NRCC’s Young Guns mentorship program.
Both organizations say they identify and recruit promising female candidates, offer them mentorship throughout their campaigns and provide them with advice on how to accumulate financial backers. Money is a big hurdle for women candidates.
“In particular women candidates have struggled with fundraising,” Andrea Bozek of Project Grow said.
The lack of monetary support is a particular pain point for the GOP.
While a group like Project Grow is willing to invest in women candidates, outside conservative PACS have so far generally given more in individual contributions to male rather than female candidates.
That financial disadvantage is especially damaging in the primary phase of an election, says Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University.
“Emily’s List—when it comes in it boosts candidates—it boosts them with party leadership and it boosts them to give them early money,” said Dittmar said. “There is not a similar entity that does the same thing with the same effectiveness on the Republican side.”
Putting more women on the ballot doesn't necessarily mean more women will end up in Congress - but closing the candidate gender gap is going to be an important step for both parties as they head into the 2016 presidential election.