By: Alex Isanstadt
In an unprecedented expansion of their scope and profile, conservative women’s groups are plowing cash into the campaigns of female candidates across the map.
At least three separate groups are actively engaged in efforts to elect conservative women to Congress, providing a counterpoint to influential Democratic-oriented women’s groups, such as EMILY’s List, which have long played an outsize role in funneling resources into electing women to office.
The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that backs female candidates who oppose abortion, is on track to raise and spend as much as $12 million this election cycle — $4 million more than the group spent in 2008 and more than twice as much as it spent in 2004. As recently as three weeks ago, the SBA List announced it was launching a $215,000 independent expenditure campaign in support of California GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who won the nomination June 8. The group also spent $200,000 in neighboring Nevada, where it backed former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, who finished second in that state’s June 8 Senate primary.
“The stakes are high for women and unborn children this election,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, whose group claims 280,000 members. “Our membership is energized like never before, and we are committed to making gains at the ballot box in November.”
The groups’ leaders say they’ve been spurred to action by a confluence of political events — the inspirational value of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination, an abundance of credentialed female conservative candidates and a landscape that is rife with opportunities for Republicans.
“We are definitely ramping up,” said Concerned Women for America Political Action Committee Executive Director Mike Mears. “We are seeing a lot going on out there.”
The Concerned Women for America PAC, another group that opposes abortion rights, plans to bundle $10,000-$15,000 for candidates in more than 40 targeted races this cycle and, for the first time in the organization’s history, will launch an independent expenditure campaign.
The 50,000-member organization has already endorsed 38 House and Senate candidates — more than double the number of contenders it backed in 2006 and 2008. In January, the PAC brought in Penny Nance, an outspoken and visible social conservative activist, to serve as its chief executive officer.
Independent Women’s Voice is another group that is suddenly flexing its muscles. IWV has invested more than a half-million dollars in key 2010 races — not enough to leave a big footprint in races but a significant amount for an organization that had never previously spent money on elections.
Already, IWV’s presence has been felt: In May, the group was the only outside organization on the airwaves in Hawaii’s House special election, spending about $250,000.
Heather Higgins, the organization’s president and chief executive officer and a longtime conservative activist, says the group is planning an independent expenditure campaign in the fall.
The increased involvement is in no small part the result of the increased number of viable GOP female candidates seeking office this year. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 17 Republican women have sought Senate seats this cycle, compared with six in 2008. And 113 Republican women have sought House seats in 2010, compared with just 65 in 2008.
“There has been a big shift. We are seeing Republican women running and really stepping up,” said SBA’s Dannenfelser. “It’s qualitatively different this year than last.”
“We are seeing women come of age in politics,” added Concerned Women for America’s Nance. “It’s a coming of age in conservatism to have women embracing becoming our leaders.”
The more expansive conservative female presence is also a reflection of the rise and prominence of outspoken, high-profile female pols such as Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), both of whom are frequently credited with advancing an activist mind-set in conservative women’s circles.
Dannenfelser, whose organization played host to Palin at a May breakfast fundraiser in Washington, noted that the former Alaska governor played an important role in conservative politics — a world that is dominated by men.
Palin’s model “has absolutely produced a template to step up in a way we haven’t seen before,” said Dannenfelser. “You have a traditional woman doing a nontraditional thing. Before those doors opened, they were largely closed to Republican women.”
The issue agenda, once the primary focus for many of the groups, is another reason the groups have stepped up their efforts.
As the debate over federal funding for abortion took center stage in the health care push, the SBA List launched a “Votes Have Consequences” campaign aimed at contacting hundreds of thousands of anti-abortion voters across the country. Concerned Women for America PAC, for its part, is set to announce a similar campaign, targeting Democrats who voted for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
“When you’ve got a Congress that just passed don’t ask, don’t tell, when you’ve got an administration that is the most pro-abortion administration in years, I think that’s a factor,” said Mears. “I think groups are saying the stakes are pretty high.”
Social issues, however, aren’t the groups’ sole focus. IWV is centering its campaign on the nation’s ailing economy, running an ad in the Hawaii special election that hammered former Democratic Rep. Ed Case as a “tax-raising liberal.”
“For the last year, we think [Troubled Asset Relief Program], the stimulus and the health care bill have really brought economic issues to the fore,” said Higgins.
And while social issues like abortion and gay marriage have for years dominated the agenda for conservative women, Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who works with all three women’s groups, said homing in on the economy was key to appealing to those voters in 2010.
“I think, for years, women were concerned about the abortion issue. I think women’s issues in 2010 begin with the economy,” said Conway. “You can’t say abortion is a women’s issue and leave it at that. This year, the predominant concerns are jobs, the economy and health care.”