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GOP women divided over RNC report's recommendations

After their losses in last year’s elections, Republicans from across the country admitted they have a problem with African-American, Latino and minority voters.


But the GOP’s problem also extends to female voters, especially after President Barack Obama beat challenger Mitt Romney by 11 percentage points among women. 


“When you have senators who don’t even know the anatomy of a woman, you have a problem,” said former Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.). “They need to keep quiet.”


The Republican National Committee responded last week by releasing its Growth and Opportunity Project, which included recommendations to provide training programs for potential female candidates, to employ more female surrogates and to implement sessions educating members on the best ways to communicate with women.


“Communicating, organizing, and winning the women’s vote should be part of all activities that the RNC undertakes,” the report stated. “Women are not a ‘coalition.’ They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us election.”


Current and former female GOP officeholders believe the RNC’s actions are a good start, but they disagree over whether the party needs to change its communications strategy, its policies or both.


“[The RNC report] has the right message, but we’re still not meeting women in the right places,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who recommended using media outlets like women’s magazines and programming to better communicate with them.


Morella adds that improving the GOP’s performance with female voters involves following through on the RNC’s plans to recruit and then support female leaders to increase the party’s desirability. When she entered national politics in 1987, there were equal numbers of Republican and Democratic women in Congress. Democratic women now outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-1 margin.


“Pictures of the Republican Party seem to be all men,” Morella said. “Let some women into the picture!”


“I think our party thinks in terms of the man who will run instead of the women who have more experience,” Blackburn adds. “Women generally don’t raise their hands to run, but wait to be called on.”


Adding more female candidates and surrogates, however, will do little to help the party if it’s not accompanied by more a substantive change to policy, says former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.


“It’s not about the messaging; it’s the message,” she said. “We are perceived as being unsympathetic to the needs of the most vulnerable.”


Whitman, for example, cited the 138 House Republicans -- including a dozen women -- who voted against the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization for a variety of reasons, such as opposition to new protections for gays.


Another example is last year’s political debate over contraception. “The most conservative position you can take is to get the party out of the bedroom,” Whitman said. “But instead, you’re getting into that issue and it really turns people off.”


Morella agreed that the last election highlighted the need for Republicans to update some of their policies to attract -- not alienate -- new groups.


“The issues have gone so far to the right, there’s not much appeal, especially for younger women,” Morella said.


The process of attracting women voters is likely to be a slow one, no matter how the party approaches it, notes Karen O’Connor, Director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.


Republicans, O’Connor says, will need to convince women that they are acting in their best interests in order to retain the House and pick up Senate seats in 2012, O’Connor said.


Morella, the former Republican congresswoman, is optimistic if only because the party cannot do much worse.


“As Abigail Adams said to John, ‘I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,’” Morella said.


“Who would have thought it took this long! History keeps repeating itself.”