By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republicans chagrined by how few women their party has serving in Congress are launching an initiative on Wednesday aimed at reversing the trend in the 2020 elections, though steep fundraising, recruitment and policy hurdles lie ahead.
The WFW (Winning for Women) Action Fund, which raises money to support female Republican candidates for Congress, is announcing a goal of electing 20 Republican women to the House of Representatives next year.
There are 13 Republican women serving in the House now, down from 23 in the previous Congress and the smallest number since 1995. Democrats have 89 female representatives after a record number of women ran for office in 2018, many of them motivated by a dislike of President Donald Trump.
"Our numbers are so low, it's become appalling," said Olivia Perez-Cubas, spokeswoman for the WFW Action Fund.
The fund will ramp up recruitment efforts and offer more financial support to help women get through primaries, where they sometimes struggle against men who are viewed as more conservative by the party's base.
Some party activists report a high level of early interest from Republican women thinking about throwing their hats in the ring for Congress in 2020.
Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC (Value in Electing Women Political Action Committee), another group that supports Republican women candidates, said she has already met with as many as 85 women considering a bid.
"At this point in the 2017 cycle, it probably would have been a third of that," Conway said, noting many of the women are looking to run in the competitive swing seats Republicans lost when Democrats seized control of the House in the mid-term elections last year.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's official congressional campaign arm, has engaged with 172 women interested in running, and 50 have filed papers to run, spokesman Michael McAdams said.
Republicans suffered a setback last week when Representative Susan Brooks, who heads NRCC recruiting efforts, announced she would take herself out of the re-election game by retiring from Congress next year.
Democrats pounced on the news about the Indiana lawmaker. Representative Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said it underscored the problem Republicans had created "in a party whose leadership continually marginalizes women’s voices."
The disparity between the number of Republican and Democratic female lawmakers has never been greater, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
"You are talking about a situation where of the 127 women who serve in Congress, House and Senate, 106 are Democrats and 21 are Republicans. That's the biggest difference we've ever seen," Walsh said.
Republican women lag far behind in financial resources compared to their Democratic counterparts. Organizations such as Emily's List spent $24.4 million last year to back female House Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.
By contrast, VIEW PAC says it has directly contributed and helped raise over $6.5 million for Republican women candidates since it began operating more than 20 years ago.
Republican women in 2020 may also have to grapple with a voter backlash to new laws in some states restricting abortion and could find it difficult to disentangle their candidacies from the impact of Trump's rhetoric and policies, Walsh said.
"Women’s underrepresentation (in Congress) has been a problem within the Republican party for a while, but I think Donald Trump’s presidency has only exacerbated that situation," Walsh said.
In the near term, Republican women activists are hoping their preferred candidate prevails in a special election in North Carolina's third congressional district, to replace long-time Republican Representative Walter Jones who died in February.
The July 9 Republican primary runoff pits pediatrician Joan Perry, who has never before run for political office, against state lawmaker Greg Murphy.
All 13 Republican women in the U.S. House have endorsed Perry. The WFW Action Fund has spent almost half a million dollars on advertising on her behalf, and Women Speak Out PAC, linked to the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, has spent $75,000 backing her.
However, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Republican Representative Mark Meadows, has endorsed Murphy, saying he has done more to advance conservative policy.
Perry agrees more Republican women are needed in Congress. But she is urging voters to elect her for her conservative stances, including her opposition to abortion and support for Trump's wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I am running for whom I am, and the values that I embrace," she said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)