GOP Still Hoping to Close Gender Gap

The birthplace of the women's rights movement, Seneca Falls, N.Y., has become the scene of another women's movement — the New York Republican Party's efforts to reach beyond the gender gap and recruit women to join GOP ranks.

The New York Republican State Committee launched its "Empire Women" recruitment campaign this month in the town where the First Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848. The initiative includes leadership training seminars for women interested in politics and information on how to organize voter registration drives.

Empire Women has received a "tremendous response" so far, said state GOP committee spokesman Todd Alhart, already signing up about 300 women. And with half of the GOP ticket in New York this year comprised of women — including at the top Lt. Gov. Mary Donahue and attorney general candidate Dora Irizarry — Empire Women recruiters say this could finally be the GOP's Year of the Woman.

But numbers show Republicans still have some challenges ahead of them.  While Republican women outnumbered Democratic women on the lower rungs of the political ladder by two-to-one in 1998 for mayoralships, town clerks and the like, GOP women are still playing catch-up in statewide and national races.

In New York's state Legislature, just 45 of the 211 members are women, and only 12 of them, or about 25 percent, are Republican. Among New York's 31-member congressional delegation, only six are women. Five of them are Democrats.

"A lot more [women] are identifying with the Democratic ticket when they decide to run," said Traci Siegel, executive director of the Democratic National Committee's Women's Vote Center.

Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report said the disparity comes down to issues: Democrats are generally considered to be the "mommy party", focusing more on education and health care. The GOP, or the "daddy party", focuses on defense and fiscal responsibility.

"If you were going to design one party to go after female voters and another to go after male voters … the fact is, the parties would pretty much look the way these two parties look," Cook said.

Still, the lone New York Republican woman in Congress, Rep. Sue Kelly, told that the GOP — through such groups as Empire Women — offers more opportunities for women to advance.

"Our party has been consistent … we don't go out and wave flags … but it's been consistent" in offering women status roles such as chairmanships of committees and subcommittees, she said.

"We haven't made a big deal about it because people are just doing their jobs," said Kelly, who heads the House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations subcommittee and is on the conference committee dealing with accounting reform legislation.

And some GOP state parties say they are fanatical about their females.

In Texas, the head of the state GOP is a woman. Half of the four women state senators are Republican, and 14 of the 30 women in the House are Republican. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Kay Granger both wield significant power in Congress.

"Women, generally, particularly in the past 10 years, have flocked to the Republican Party" in Texas, said Christy Payne, deputy communications director for the state GOP.

In Florida, four of the seven women in the 40-person state Senate are Republican, as are 14 of the 31 women in the 120-member House. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris also made a name for herself in the 2000 presidential election recount.

"I'd almost say we've been so successful we almost take it for granted now," said Towson Fraser, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida.

Equalizing the state and national field may not come this year for Republican women. The Democratic Party is fielding 114 Democratic House seats, 12 for Senate and 16 for governor. Republicans have 68 women running for House positions, seven for the Senate and nine for governor.

And unfortunately for women in general, experts add, the composition of the two parties is not expected to change anytime soon.

"Both parties are, at long last, trying to recruit women to be on their ballots," but "a level of tokenism will probably continue for a few more decades," said Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies.