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WASHINGTON – Tired of hearing Democrats accuse them of waging a “war on women,” Republicans are now, finally and aggressively, fighting back.

With the help of a communications guru from Williamsville, the committee in charge of electing more Republicans to the House is working with candidates – women and men alike – to train them to respond when Democrats attack and to sharpen their messaging to appeal to female voters. What’s more, the party has stepped up its efforts to recruit women candidates, although that effort has proved, by many measures, to be a struggle.

It’s an abrupt about-face for a party that, only two years ago, suffered mightily from one gaffe-prone male Senate candidate who casually tossed off the term “legitimate rape” and another who opined that if a woman gets pregnant as a result of a rape, “that’s something God intended to happen.”

Not surprisingly, such comments did nothing to bridge the “gender gap.” Exit polls from the 2012 presidential race showed that the incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama, outpolled Republican Mitt Romney by 11 points among women, although Romney eked out a win among married women.

Afterwards, GOP operatives – many of them women – decided that Republican candidates had to come to grips with an obvious fact.

“If you aren’t engaging with women as part of your campaign strategy, you’re doomed,” said Andrea Bozek, the Williamsville South High School graduate who now serves as communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

There are good reasons for that warning. Women make up about 54 percent of the electorate, and for the past 30 years, more women have identified as Democrats than as Republicans.

Those two facts combine to put Republicans at a disadvantage that they are trying to reverse after years of not paying much attention to it.

“We have done things specific to womens’ engagement before, but I will say there is more of a focus this time because after 2012, with women and a lot of things, we had to kind of press the restart button,” said Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “We realized what we were doing was just not working.”

That reset involves several efforts aimed at women voters, such as “14 in ’14,” an effort to engage young Republican women in the last weeks of this year’s midterm campaigns. The party also started a “Women Win” initiative to groom more female GOP operatives and a training and mentorship program aimed at preparing Republican women to run for office.

Meanwhile, the NRCC has initiated “Project GROW,” which stands for “Growing Republican Opportunities for Women.” It’s a broad-ranging effort that involves fighting off Democratic attacks, portraying GOP candidates in ways appealing to female voters and recruiting more women to run for the House.

Turning the tables

First and foremost, Project GROW aims to turn the tables on Democrats who accuse the GOP of waging a “war on women.”

This comes after years in which Republican politicians handed the Democrats the ammunition they need to make that accusation. For instance, the Republican-led House dawdled for nearly two years before reauthorizing a bill aimed at combatting violence against women, while taking up anti-abortion legislation that was doomed to fail in the Democrat-led Senate. And the GOP has repeatedly tried to repeal Obamacare in total – which would once again allow insurers in some states to consider womanhood as a “pre-existing condition” that allows insurers to charge higher rates.

Given that history, Democrats say that it’s clear that the GOP is waging a war on women that it cannot win.

“The issues the Republicans have not just put forward but put at the top of their priority list alienate women,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

Republican operatives acknowledge that their party has struggled to respond to such allegations in years past, but they say the party now seems to be finding its voice.

For example, Terri Lynn Land, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan, is out with an ad that asks voters to “think about” whether she really is waging a war on women.

“As a woman, I might know a little more about women than Gary Peters,” Land says.

Meanwhile, after Senate Democrats pushed for a Paycheck Fairness Act that aims to further encourage equal pay for women, GOP operatives armed their candidates with a response that portrayed the bill as a lawsuit generator that might just scare employees out of hiring women in the first place. In addition, the party is encouraging its candidates to portray Obamacare as anti-woman.

“A lot of single women look at Obamacare and say: I don’t want the government making those decisions for me,” said Kukowski, the RNC press secretary.

Beyond the issues

The GOP effort to appeal to women goes far beyond the issues. Burned in the past by gaffe-prone conservative politicians who talked blithely and casually about issues like rape, the NRCC is now working with its candidates to make sure they stay on-message.

“In a 24-hour news cycle, one candidate’s gaffes is every candidate’s gaffes,” said Bozek, the Williamsville native working for the NRCC.

Moreover, the GOP is working with male candidates – especially those being challenged by female opponents – to make sure that they reach out directly to women voters.

Proof can be found in the 2014 re-election campaign of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who in the past focused his campaigns largely on cutting government spending. This year, his campaign has initiated a “Women for Reed Coalition,” and the candidate has made the fight against domestic violence one of his key talking points. His website – which featured a picture of Reed alone two years ago – now opens with a portrait of Reed with his wife, daughter and son.

Those are just the sort of stylistic touches that Bozek, a former communications aide to Buffalo-area Reps. Tom Reynolds and Chris Lee, has been encouraging.

“She’s been terrific at helping our candidates learn how to effectively communicate their message in their districts and has been part of the team we’ve had here that sits down with women candidates and helps them understand every piece of a successful campaign,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who chairs the NRCC.

Bozek noted that there are now 18 women among its 84 “Young Guns,” or most promising House candidates. That’s up from seven in 2012.

Struggle to attract

Then again, when Democrats announced their first round of “Red to Blue” most promising House candidates, a majority of them were women. Included in that list was Martha Robertson, the Democrat challenging Reed.

That’s just one of many statistics showing that while Republicans are trying mightily to recruit more women to run for the House, they are struggling to do so.

Some 78 Republican women have filed to run for the House this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s down from 108 two years ago, and it compares to the 136 Democratic women who have waged House bids this year.

Several factors explain why Republicans are running fewer female House candidates this year. Leading the list, strangely, may be the party’s success in building its biggest House majorities since the 1940s. That gives women Republicans fewer opportunities to run, since they’re not likely to challenge GOP incumbents, said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

On top of that, though, many Republican women are losing primaries to their male opponents. As of May 20, 14 Republican women won House primaries while 20 lost. Meanwhile, 26 Democratic women have won House primaries and only 12 lost.

That’s all part of a historic trend that shows less than 42 percent of Republican women winning House primaries every year since 2006. It’s also a reversal of what happened between 1998 and 2004, when more than half the GOP women candidates made it through their primaries.

“As the Republican Party has become more and more conservative, that’s a challenge for women candidates due to gender expectations that they’re more liberal,” said Kelly Dittmar, the Rutgers professor who compiled those statistics in a paper last year.

Add it all up, and it’s certain that despite the GOP’s increased efforts to attract more women candidates, the Republican Party will lag behind Democrats for years to come in terms of female representation in the House. After all, the GOP has a big gap to make up: while there are 63 female Democrats in the House, there are now only 19 female Republicans.

Bozek, for one, acknowledged that it will take time for the Republicans to catch up.

“Project GROW started with the expectation that this would be a long-term effort,” she said. “No one expects us to make the institutional changes that need to happen overnight. It needs to be a long-term process, but we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com