In August of this year, members of a local Republican women’s club were gathered in the Duval Hotel in downtown Tallahassee to hear from one of Florida’s top political consultants, who had a mission for them. Brett Doster was preparing a voter registration effort—unusual for a Republican, at least in Florida, where Democrats tend to make that kind of nuts-and-bolts politicking a priority.
Doster stood up at the front of the room and made the case for volunteering to register different demographics—veterans, recent retirees—that are likely Republican supporters but may not be registered because they’ve recently moved to the state. Doster spoke excitedly—timing can be critical in terms of getting voters registered and eligible for the next election—but there was one group he left out.
“The word ‘woman’ was never mentioned one time in the entire one hour speech,” recalls Sandra Mortham, a longtime Republican politician and lobbyist. As the gathering broke up, Mortham cornered Doster. “I missed that part of the speech,” she told him.
To Mortham’s surprise, Doster said he deliberately hadn’t mentioned women. Women are a reliable voting bloc, he explained, and they consistently turn out in higher numbers than men. They didn’t need to be registered, Doster said, at least not when other favorable groups could be targeted. Mortham nodded. They agreed to meet later at his office to discuss the project.
“I’m anxious to find out what their thought process is,” says Mortham. “I just find it amazing that you can have 56 percent of the voting population and we are not all over that like a tent.”
For many women in the party, the frustration goes beyond the way leading strategists talk about female voters—it extends to the makeup of campaign teams and the look of many GOP strategy tables. Republicans, it has been said, have a woman problem. In 2012, women were a majority of voters; nationally, 55 percent of them voted Democratic, according to exit polling. The Democrats’ advantage with women helped the party overcome the GOP’s edge with male voters. It’s not hyperbole to say that women decided the election.
“We’ve got to start tailoring campaigns with that in mind, and the best way to do that is having female voices at the table,” says Katie Packer Gage, a founding partner of WWP Strategies and Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. “We’re just being dumb if we don’t do that.”
To be sure, there are a number of prominent female consultants operating on the Republican side of the aisle. The influential Nicole McCleskey is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. Angela Faulkner, an Indiana-based direct mail consultant, owns her firm, Gridiron Communications. Longtime media strategist Kim Alfano heads her D.C.-based firm. The former Republican National Committee chief of staff Anne Hathaway is also in that category, and the recently-formed GOP media firm Something Else Strategies boasts Malorie Thompson and Lori Raad among its partners.
After 2012, according to Ashley O’Connor, who advised Romney’s presidential campaign, there might just be reason to believe the ranks of female Republican operatives are ready to increase.
“In the past, I’ve not come across too many women,” says O’Connor, a managing partner at Strategic Partners & Media. “But walking into the Romney campaign, I was incredibly pleased with how many women were there.”
She points to Gail Gitcho, Katie Biber, who was the campaign’s general counsel, and Packer Gage as just part of the female contingent on Romney’s senior leadership team. “That’s not often the case,” says O’Connor.
That, however, is not a universally held opinion. In fact, Packer Gage remembers the Romney strategy table a bit diferently. “At our strategy table on the campaign, there were probably 50 people and four women present,” she says. “Usually it was only three of us … It makes it hard to counter a very male perspective which permeates campaigns both on the right and the left.”
Right or left, many female operatives and consultants have in common the experience of being the only woman in the room—Thompson, a top adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is one of them.
“If you take me out,” says Thompson, “and you’re left with only men sitting around the table talking about, ‘how are we going to target women?’ I think you’re left with a perspective gap, really, which then grows into a gender gap.” If you happen to be the party struggling mightily when it comes to winning over female voters, that’s a problem.
“If you look at the numbers, women are the majority of the population; we’re the majority of voters,” Thompson says. “We have a higher turnout ratio, and we’re the majority of consumers, the majority of television watchers. If you want to talk to the majority of voters, you have to craft a campaign that talks to women.”
Having more women at the proverbial table is, most Republicans agree, a good thing. For them, it’s a question of priorities. Some in the party’s leadership believe that recruiting more female candidates will attract a larger share of female votes. But for the female members of the GOP’s consulting class—the few partners or firm-owners—an approach that only focuses on candidate recruitment misses the point. It’s more female consultants and top-level operatives that are needed to shape the party’s targeting and messaging to women.
Hiring a female consultant or operative just for the sake of hiring one isn’t going to help the party, warns Jillian Hasner, who managed Meg Whitman’s 2010 California gubernatorial campaign. But, she says, it’s at least the start of changing what remains a male-dominated consulting culture.
“You can’t just think, ‘Oh, let’s have a women’s coalition director.’ It’s about completely changing how you run a campaign.”
Not everyone agrees that there’s a dearth of female operatives on the right, or that it has much at all to do with the party’s poor electoral performances over the past two presidential cycles.
“From my perspective, I don’t see it as an issue,” says Beth Myers, a top adviser to Romney during both his presidential campaigns. “Politics is a tough business, and it’s hard for anyone. I reject the premise that there are not a lot of women involved as operatives.”
Running of the number of female operatives at the highest levels of Romney’s 2012 effort, Myers notes that women ran campaign operations in three critical battlegrounds for the Republican nominee last year: Sara Craig in Virginia, Molly Donlin in Florida and Jill Neunaber in Iowa. In the Northeast, moreover, which Myers says has a strong contingent of female consultants and operatives, she points to Beth Lindstrom, who ran former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s special election race in 2009.
“The Romney campaign was the training ground for this next wave,” says Myers. “I think we’ve got a really, really strong bench of young women.”
It would seem that the GOP’s leadership and consulting class favors Myers’ view. Since last November, the party’s public focus has been on recruiting state-level female candidates through a multi-million dollar, multi-layered scouting and assistance program. Women, the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 report states, should be courted into the public arena. “The Republican Party committees need to understand that women need to be asked to run,” it states.
Ask some female Republican consultants and strategists about the candidate-focused approach, though, and they’ll point out a flaw. Even if the GOP gets a cohort of women running in upcoming cycles, women don’t automatically vote for a female candidate—one of the missing pieces might just be the lack of a female consulting perspective on some high-level GOP campaigns.
“If that were the case, we’d probably have a President Hillary Clinton today or a Vice President Sarah Palin,” says Hasner, now the CEO at Revolution 537.
Further, argues Hasner, having more female candidates won’t necessarily lead to more top-level female operatives getting hired. That’s because a female candidate won’t necessarily prefer female consultants and operatives to male ones. “Some candidates are not even involved in the hiring of their entire team,” says Hasner. “They hire their top person, their manager, and the manager goes out and hires the team.”
The RNC’s report acknowledges the problem, to wit: “The RNC must improve its efforts to include female voters and promote women to leadership ranks within the committee. Additionally, when developing our Party’s message, women need to be part of this process to represent some of the unique concerns that female voters may have.”
The consensus among women strategists on the right is that the problem of expanding the ranks of female operatives and consultants runs deeper than the party will admit. In the campaign world, much professional networking takes place around sports or beers after work.
“A lot of these settings that feel very male-focused are a little bit more difficult for a woman to break through in,” says Packer Gage, founder of Burning Glass Consulting, an all-women team of GOP operatives. “There’s a very social quality that’s a little bit more challenging to young women.”
Another challenge women in politics face hinges on the operative-consultant career track, which can send a person all over the map. Those who pursue it spend their 20s in hastily found apartments in random cities, and then, after Election Day, follow their contacts to the next campaign job. By the time a career campaign staffer reaches her 30s and gets her pick of management jobs, she faces a dilemma that her male colleagues don’t. One female consultant calls it a “Solomon’s choice.”
“Managing campaigns requires a tremendous commitment, and that is very difficult if you want to have a family,” says Sally Bradshaw, a top Florida strategist. “To be the caregivers for young children—it is difficult.”
Some female consultants and operatives have talked about making it easier for women to reenter the campaign workforce after they take time off to raise children. But that wouldn’t change the nature of the beast.
“It’s a difficult business. It’s an aggressive industry,” Bradshaw says. “And I think women don’t enjoy that.”
Experienced female campaign professionals also know their skills can translate into good jobs in other industries—PR or lobbying—which offer the kinds of benefits that can help with child rearing, like stable health insurance, family and sick leave, and flexible schedules. Those benefits are generally lacking in the campaign world.
“Let’s face it,” says Mandy Fletcher Fraher, a veteran manager, “once you have had a number of years on the campaign trail, and you get a decent amount of experience behind you, a lot of us are moving into the role of other motherhood. That’s not to say we can’t do both and don’t do both, but there’s a lot more on our plates and we become very efficient. So if we don’t feel like our opinions and our experience is being valued, we’re going to move on.”
Rather than focus on recruiting more women to the ticket, the GOP should focus on retaining and nurturing its talented female political operatives. By doing that, according to an active core of female consultants on the right, the party can change how it approaches the modern American woman, who is increasingly the breadwinner in many homes.
In fact, 40 percent of American households with children now include a mother who is either the sole or primary family earner. “Breadwinner moms,” as the Pew Research Center calls them, would be a receptive target of the Republican message on, for instance, taxes. But when it comes to single women, Republicans aren’t even close to being competitive. Four in 10 female voters are single, and Obama won single women by 36 percent.
“It’s not just all about social issues,” says Packer Gage. “We think there needs to be a smarter approach to communicating what our party stands for to women.”
Democrats have based their training for female operatives on social issues. EMILY’s List, for instance, has long been a guiding hand in the training of female campaign staffers and the recruitment of candidates. The group was founded with the goal of supporting female candidates who backed abortion rights. On the right there are groups like the Leadership Institute, which conducts trainings, but nothing that compares in terms of a women-focused political force.
Female Republicans are now trying to replicate the success of EMILY’s List in the form of Maggie’s List, a group founded in 2010 that for now just gives the federal maximum contribution to its supported candidates. “EMILY’s List has been extremely successful, and for that I congratulate them,” says Mortham, a former Florida secretary of state who chairs Maggie’s List. “We on the other hand have been more fragmented, and I believe that it’s time we stepped forward to say, ‘We can do the same thing.’”
Getting more women into leadership positions on campaigns and at the national party committees, the thinking goes, will help get more Republicans elected because candidates will have access to a wider array of opinions.
“We need more women in senior leadership positions on campaigns,” says Liesl Hickey, who as the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee is one of the highest-ranking female operatives in the GOP. “I think we’ll see the benefit of it electorally.”
Campaign training, notes Hickey, isn’t just an issue for women; it’s lacking more generally on the right. “It has not been a focus in the party as much as it should be, and it’s something Democrats do well,” she says. “Women Up, Women Lead, and other women’s groups are starting great training programs, and those will be very useful to the party as a whole.”
Packer Gage is more candid: “I think that we certainly have some challenges winning elections because we don’t have enough women at the table,” she says, “and historically the Democrats and the left have had a more natural cultivating ground because they defined themselves as this sort of women’s issue party, and so they’ve had organizations like EMILY’s List and NOW [National Organization for Women] that have been in place for several decades and have cultivated a generation of women that are liberal in their thinking.”
Quantifying the gender imbalance between the parties isn’t easy. At the top level of the 2012 presidential campaigns, for instance, the Republicans appeared to have an edge. At least, that’s how it was presented at the Harvard Institute of Politics postmortem last December, when the senior staff from each camp appeared on stage together: Stephanie Cutter was the only woman on the left, Myers and Gail Gitcho the only women on the right.
Still, Democratic female consultants are confident they outnumber their Republican colleagues in the industry by a fairly wide margin.
“The only female Republican consultants I’ve ever met are a pollster and two fundraisers,” says Liz Chadderon of the Chadderon Group. “To my knowledge, I have never met a female Republican direct mail consultant, and I’ve never met a female Republican media consultant. That leads me to believe we have more women out running campaigns and in the consulting field than they do ... I don’t by any stretch of the imagination think we’ve reached parity on our side of the aisle, but I think we’re better than they are.”
One set of statistics backs Chadderdon up. On the board of the American Association of Political Consultants, six of the 10 slots for Democrats are filled by women. Only three of 11 on the GOP side are female.
“A woman Republican consultant is an anomaly,” says Ondine Fortune, a media consultant and an AAPC board member. “When you’re talking about Republican women, it’s a small pool. And I think a lot of that has to do with the politics of the party. The politics are, in many cases, anti-women.”
The way that many Republican candidates talked to and about women voters in 2012 was counter-productive and even offensive at times, several female GOP consultants told C&E. Think Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments during the Missouri Senate race.
“Every party has their extremists, and unfortunately some of the extremists on the conservative side have a tendency to be somewhat offensive to women,” says Fletcher Fraher. But even having a “large” contingent of female advisers is no guarantee of success. Despite his “binders full of women” gaffe, Romney had a solid record of hiring women as a governor and as a candidate. Still, Romney’s numbers with female voters weren’t any better than John McCain’s in 2008.
“Republicans are not doing as well with women voters as we should be, and it’s like, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” asks Fletcher Fraher. “Is it because we don’t have enough female voices in the inner circles of those campaigns, or is it because we are communicating poorly to women and therefore there’s less interest in being a part of it? I think it’s probably the former. I think we just don’t have enough talented political female minds at the table of every campaign across the nation.”
It’s worth noting that, in the area of fundraising, women have retained a large share of the campaign consulting market. The fundraising world has more women owners, consultants and finance directors than any other part of the campaign industry.
Some female campaign veterans remember when fundraising was the only place a woman was welcomed on a campaign. There’s a reason, says Ann Herberger, why women have come to dominate the field.
“The guys get into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is so sexy, I’m going to be in the money-making world.’ And then they find out it’s a lot of crap. ‘What, I have to sit with the candidate making phone calls? I have to do grunt work? I have to print nametags? This isn’t what I signed up for,’’’ she says. “It’s a grind. It’s a tough business to stay in. People either love it and they stay in it, or they get out of fundraising very fast.”
There’s no question that women in the industry are as dedicated to the campaign craft as their male colleagues. Why else work the hours? But for the GOP’s female consultants and operatives, something needs to change.
“We don’t necessarily need to treat women any differently, we just need to treat them with the same respect and value their opinions just as much as the man’s sitting at the table,” says Fletcher Fraher.
Meanwhile, Mortham, who says she’s still looking forward to meeting with Doster, is skeptical but hopeful. “I think the answer is still out,” she says, “as to whether or not everybody really has woke up and said, ‘you know what, we can do better, and these are the things we have to do in order to be better.’”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.
*Corrections: The original version of this article named Jill Neunaber as Romney's state manager in New Hampshire in the general election. Neunaber managed Iowa in the general, and New Hampshire in the GOP primary. The article also incorrectly identified Angela Faulkner's firm as Faulkner Strategies. The firm name is Gridiron Communications.