Mid-day Saturday found the dark, cavernous hall at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference half-empty. Billed as the "kickoff to 2020" and expected to draw between 1,300 and 1,500 attendees to New Orleans, the final day of the event had dwindled to a few hundred faithful, the committed but comfortable hailing from the GOP's Southern stronghold. Past the giant elephant statue advertising a Louisiana politician, there was ample parking available.
As Julianne Thompson, head of Georgia's Women for Trump, looked out from the stage, most of the remaining seats held women. "Today, as we all know, the media is focused on women who are marching against our president," Thompson began, with a flick to the national Women's March events, "but I am here to stand with you all today and proudly proclaim with you that we support our great president of the United States, Donald J. Trump!" The room hooted and clapped. "Are you excited about re-electing our president?" Thompson yelled out to the crowd. A woman cried above the applause, "Yes!"
It's a scene at odds with the reality outside the room. Nationally, the GOP has a woman problem. Democrats won women's votes by 19 points in 2018 (59 percent to 40 percent); white women, a key GOP demographic, split their vote between the two parties, with a jump of 12 points for the Democrats from 2016. Trump is less popular with women than men in most categories of a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. The GOP's drop in suburban women voters particularly stung, contributing to the party's losses in key districts to the point that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has dubbed it "the suburban women problem." Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel (a woman Trump reportedly hopes will help him win women's votes) has put it similarly bluntly: "Why are we losing with women?"
An answer is emerging. From the viewpoint of some Republican women, what their party needs to do to win more women's votes is a lot: Recruit more charismatic messengers. Fine-tune (or "re-tool," in McDaniel's words) the actual messaging. Support women who want to run for office or run campaigns. Boost donations to women candidates. The one thing the party does not need to do is change its platform or its leader.
"We know that some of the women's vote was lost in 2018, [in large] part because many women didn't show up to the polls to vote, No. 1," Thompson told me as I chatted with her and Toni Anne Daschiell, the RNC committeewoman for Texas, before Thompson took the stage. Turnout was actually up across the country in 2018, including in Georgia, but Thompson said Republican women stayed home in key congressional districts, like Georgia's sixth, believing their party was guaranteed a win (it lost).
"And No. 2, I believe that. even though we have the right message, we don't always use the right messenger for various groups and demographics," Thompson went on. Too often the party has used a "one-size-fits-all" messaging model, she said. "You don't message the same way to a suburban mother in metro Atlanta that you would to a male farmer in South Georgia."
"We do stand on our principles, we're not going to compromise those. But we have to share where we stand," Daschiell said. "I think that Republicans are typically very logical, and we deal with numbers, and we forget to add the personal aspect into our message." Every mom worries about security, she said, but communicating that issue may require a different strategy than for a man.
Trump, Thompson added, has shown the party how important it is to build voter "relationships." She said voters were drawn to the "messenger over the message" with Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum and Democratic Senate nominee Beto O'Rourke (such "extreme leftists ... should not have come as close as they did," she later told the crowd).
Appealing to so-called "women's issues," on the other hand, doesn't make the list. "They always put those issues in the box of our reproductive system," Thompson said, a view she and other conservative women have long deemed sexist. Yet reproductive rights have proved galvanizing for Democratic women voters, and it's an issue of increasing national prominence where the GOP is at odds with national sentiment. Nearly six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases (a figure that varies state to state), according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, while the GOP's pro-life stance has arguably never been stronger.
Meanwhile, two of the Democrats making headlines are women. Their names were on the lips of conference speakers and attendees: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't "care at all" about families of those killed by undocumented immigrants, or about securing the border from "foreign nationals"; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) is a "strange," power-hungry "middle-schooler" with "a lack of understanding."
If "recapturing" the female vote, as Thompson put it, is about sending out the right, sometimes female messengers (i.e. not putting GOP men on TV to defend against accusations of a "war on women," as she told the crowd), the party is facing a battle.
Of the 127 women now in Congress, just 21 are Republican, and of the 47 women of color in Congress, only one belongs to the GOP (Democrats elect more women at the state level too). Fundraising figures are equally stark: Women donors contributed over $159 million to Democratic women in 2018, compared to a little over $19 million to GOP women. Emily's List—a major liberal PAC for pro-choice Democratic women—raised over $60 million, while three prominent conservative women's PACs collectively took in just $1 million. Polls show Democratic voters care more about electing women to office, and while the mid-terms offered a series of historic firsts for GOP women in a few states, their wins paled in comparison to the mammoth victories on the other side of the aisle.
So do Republicans need to push more women to run?
"You want to have a good candidate and if that good candidate is a woman, you want that woman to be groomed and put in there and prepared with a good message," Daschiell said. She'd like the party to support women who want to run for office, "but I'm not going to tell a young girl or a woman voter you have to vote for a woman."
"It's also extremely important to field quality candidates who are females to run campaigns," Thompson added. "Winning elections is not just about metrics, it's about relationships, and I just believe women understand that in a way that men don't."
Thompson told the conference that she'd "never been held back by a man," that it's women who tend to pull each other down. "I want to encourage you not to do that," she said. "There's not just one or two roles for women out there."
She gave out her cell phone number to the crowd at the end of her speech and promised she'd connect them to local Women for Trump affiliates to get out women voters. "We're going to wake up," she told me, "and it's going to be November of 2020."