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GOP touts trail-blazing female candidates in bid to keep, bolster House majority

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FILE: Undated: Martha McSally, a 2014 GOP candidate for an Arizona House seat. (McSallyforCongress.com)

Washington Republicans are touting two trail-blazing female candidates in their effort to keep control of the House this fall or even add to their majority.

In Arizona, Martha McSally, the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat, is trying again to take a House seat from Democrats. And in New York, 30-year-old Elise Stefanik would be the youngest female House member if she wins in November. 

The Arizona race has attracted particular attention, as McSally is running in a purple district for the seat once held by Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. McSally is expected to win the party's Aug. 26 primary and once again face Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, the former Giffords staffer who narrowly defeated McSally in 2012.

The GOP has rallied behind McSally -- whose other claim to fame, besides her  military record, was filing a 2001 lawsuit against then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over a policy requiring servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear a body-covering abaya in public. 

“She was standing up for women since Day One in the military,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said during a recent session with Capitol Hill reporters about the 2014 midterms. 

Gifford retired from Congress in early 2012 to recover from a near-fatal shooting. And Barber, with strong party support, retained the seat for Democrats, defeating McSally by roughly 2,500 votes just 10 months later. In the 2014 rematch, the candidates’ Tucson-based 2nd District remains moderate in the Republican-leaning state. 

And their campaign platforms are unsurprising similar -- stressing job growth, U.S. border security and anti-Washington political rhetoric.  

However, Barber appears this time to be on less-sure footing.

McSally, who flew combat missions over Iraq in 1995, is by most accounts running an improved campaign that also focuses on rolling back ObamaCare.

And she has avoided her first-time mistakes, like when she compared herself in 2012 to Giffords.

McSally has also out-raised Barber in four consecutive quarters, including raising roughly $100,000 more in the quarter that ended June 30. And she could benefit from historical midterm trends -- low turnout and not being in the sitting president’s political party.

The combination of factors has landed Barber on practically every list of “most vulnerable” 2014 House incumbents, even topping Roll Call newspaper’s compilation this month.

Yet he maintains a slight advantage in cash on hand, crucial for TV ad spending in the closing months of the campaign, and remains strong in the polls. The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report still rates the race a tossup.

“Our focus has always been families right here in southern Arizona -- What do they need? What will improve their lives?  How can we improve our local economy?” Barber told Fox News on Tuesday. “I speak up for what I think is right. And sometimes [President Obama] or other Democrats don't agree. But that's OK.”

The McSally campaign did not return requests for comment for this story. 

Republicans currently hold a 35-seat edge over Democrats in the House, and are confident in their ability to at least retain that majority. But they're eyeing vulnerable districts to potentially build where they can. 

In New York, Stefanik is a former Bush White House aide positioning herself as a first-time candidate eager to bring “new ideas” and “new leadership” to the upstate 21st District.

After soundly defeating primary candidate Matt Doheny in June, Stefanik now faces Democratic nominee and film producer Aaron Woolf for the open seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Bill Owen. 

Stefanik, a Harvard graduate who also worked on the Romney 2012 campaign, took a first step toward public office in 2012 when she left Washington after six years to live in her parents’ Lake Champlain summer home and started working in the family’s plywood supply company.

Her sales-and-marketing job has allowed Stefanik to rebrand herself as a small-businesswoman and talk to potential voters across the sprawling upstate New York district.  

Republicans say she has already brought unity to the divided state party, which hasn’t held the seat since 2009, with Walden pointing out that Doheny has even come back to endorse her.

“That’s very, very positive,” Walden said.

Stefanik’s campaign is focused on seniors, the military, repealing and replacing ObamaCare, and the economy -- particularly farmers, whom the nominee calls “the backbone of our North Country communities.”

Woolf’s campaign also is focused on a jobs-and-economy message, in particular inside and outside Fort Drum, which is a big part of the local economy and home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

He says aspects of ObamaCare need to be fixed “but we cannot afford to return to the past.”

The Stefanik campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Supporters of Woolf, a New Yorker who also reportedly lives in his parents’ vacation home, are trying to portray Stefanik as a carpetbagger eager to distance herself from her Washington establishment connections while relying on them to contribute millions to her campaign.

“Elise Stefanik is a career Washington insider, and her campaign is being bankrolled by Karl Rove and her D.C. allies because they know she will continue to …  stack the deck in favor of the special interests and the ultra-wealthy,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Marc Brumer said Wednesday. 

Fox News' Aalia Shaheed contributed to this report.