GOP Trains Candidates Running Against Women to Avoid Gaffes; Female Conservative Leaders Say It's Not Enough

Todd Akin
Congressman Todd Akin in a video apology released by his campaign. |

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is training Republican candidates to avoid gaffes such as Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, which contributed to the Democratic accusation that Republicans are waging a "War on Women." Female conservative strategists agree that this is a step in the right direction, but insisted it would not be enough.

"You need to be very careful in how you approach any group and what you say," NRCC Chairman Greg Walden, a representative from Ohio, said in a statement Thursday. Walden called the art of designing messages to specific audiences "Politics 101." Politico reported "multiple sessions" where congressional aides were trained in "messaging against women opponents." The report mentioned at least 10 male Republican incumbents facing female Democratic challengers next year.

While this Republican group may be training male incumbents to defeat women, it may also be encouraging women to run as GOP candidates. "Recruiting women candidates is a top priority of the NRCC this cycle," Liesl Hickey, executive director of the NRCC, said in an email statement. "We've had tremendous support from our women members of Congress through our Project Grow initiative," Hickey added.

Project GROW stands for "Growing Republican Opportunities for Women." The NRCC told CP that there have been several GROW outreach and recruitment events since the program was launched in July.

But strategists agree this may not be enough. "Democrats have a well-fleshed out women's platform, including universal pre-K, expanding the federal minimum wage, and other initiatives," Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of Independent Women's Voice (IWV), told The Christian Post on Friday.

"Republicans don't know how to respond to this platform or show a positive outreach to women," Schaeffer argued. "That is a serious problem."

"Teaching candidates not to say stupid things will hopefully keep them out of the fire, but they need to tackle issues for women head-on," Schaeffer explained. She argued that neither Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney nor Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli responded well to Democrat attacks that resonated with women. "They have to go on the offense," she argued.

Republicans, she argued, should emphasize options for child care and women in the workplace. In responding to universal pre-K, Republicans should point out that "every church, every synagogue provides child care and preschool," but when the government gets involved, "it pushes out these options."

Nevertheless, Schaeffer did mention a few "really talented female candidates," who demonstrate the ability to reach out to this demographic. She particularly praised Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Conference and representative from Washington State. The Independent Women's Forum, a group connected with IWV, awarded her the "Barbara K. Olson Woman of Valor award in October.

Schaeffer also praised the efforts of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who "actually reversed the gender gap."

Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America (CWA), agreed with Schaeffer about addressing issues head-on. "I think when our side clearly defines itself, when we clearly articulate what we believe, we win," Nance told CP on Friday. She praised the NRCC's efforts because "training gives you confidence to talk about these issues."

In learning from the mistakes of 2012 and 2013, Nance warned against a retreat on social issues. Specifically, she mentioned the 20-week abortion ban as "an 80-20 issue where the majority of people agree with us." While the left brands pro-life Republicans as radicals, "the real radicals on the issue of life are those who think that abortion is fine after 20 weeks," Nance declared.

"You need to learn to be winsome to the audience to which you're speaking," Nance explained. The trick to connecting with women isn't focusing on different "women's issues," but in presenting Republican stances in a way that resonates with that target demographic.

Nance mentioned a focus group in which CWA joined other pro-life groups, Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life, which provided polling and other specific information to an undisclosed list of candidates. When asked if she has found this focus group successful, Nance responded, "Have you heard anything particularly embarrassing recently? So far so good."

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