OLD FORGE, N.Y. — Elise Stefanik is fighting to make history in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, an expanse of rural America in upstate New York that — like the Republican Party — is struggling to grow.
Just 10 weeks after her 30th birthday, the Republican congressional hopeful is poised to become the youngest woman of either party ever elected to Congress. She must first overcome a well-funded Democratic opponent, skeptical voters and barriers from within the GOP that long have limited opportunities for women despite the Republican establishment’s push to highlight diversity among its ranks.
Stefanik, an aide in George W. Bush’s White House, hopes to join a House Republican majority currently comprising just 19 women and 214 men. Democrats have three times the number of women serving in the House, and four times as many in the Senate, and enjoy a perennial advantage with female voters nationwide that Republicans are desperate to erase.
“It’s not news to anyone that Republicans have struggled to reach out to voters in my specific demographic: young women who are professional, not married. That was one of President Obama’s most enthusiastic voting blocs,” Stefanik, who worked to defeat Obama as a member of Mitt Romney’s campaign, said during a recent tour of small businesses along Old Forge’s bustling main drag. “There is an appetite in this district for a new type of Republican.”
The party’s “women problem” was well-documented in the Republican National Committee’s 2012 postelection report. It helped spawn a program instituted by House Republicans last summer, Project Grow, that includes renewed focus on recruitment, training and fundraising for promising female candidates nationwide. Stefanik is among the program’s beneficiaries, who are spread across the country.
It is a long-term effort, GOP officials say, and one that is critical to the party’s future.
“The job of the party committees is to recruit the best candidates possible, and this cycle we have an outstanding field of women candidates running across the country,” says Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which leads Project Grow.
Project Grow has been slow to produce results, however. The number of Republican women set to appear on the ballot in House races this fall is roughly the same as in prior elections, according to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Republicans had 47 Republican women on the ballot in 2010 and 2012 elections, down from a high of 53 female candidates in 2004; there will be at least 51 this November after Tuesday’s primaries.
“There’s a lot attention on women in general in this election,” Walsh said. “But it’s a trajectory that appears to be moving in the wrong direction.”
There are few opportunities for Republican women in part because there are so few congressional seats in play every two years. Redistricting has given GOP incumbents a stronger grip on the vast majority of their 234 seats, and Republican leaders aren’t willing to encourage promising female candidates to challenge incumbents.
Stefanik found an opening in New York’s 21st Congressional District, where her father still runs the plywood distribution company he founded two decades ago. The seat, held by retiring three-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, is considered one of the GOP’s top pickup opportunities.
A veteran Washington operative years before she turned 30, Stefanik fought through residency questions to win her party’s nomination in late June. She opposed a better-known Republican businessman with the help of establishment-minded super PACs that funneled more than $1 million into the primary contest on her behalf.
Stefanik faces Democrat Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker and business owner who already has dipped into his personal finances to lend his campaign $400,000.
She spent much of the summer touring the rural villages and towns of the district, which encompasses roughly 15,000 square miles and extends from the Canadian border across the Adirondacks to Saratoga Springs. The district is one of the largest in the eastern United States, and its voters are among the oldest.
“I may be the only woman who was looking forward to her 30th birthday,” Stefanik said with a laugh during a recent interview.
She says she’s particularly concerned with the exodus of young people from the region. She often refers to “my generation” and “people my age” while talking to voters who worry aloud about the area’s economic challenges.
Some concede that her age was a factor — at least at first.
“That was everybody’s first impression: She’s just too young,” says Chip Kiefer, whose Old Forge’s Souvenir Village displays an “Elise for Congress” sign on its front window. “But having young energy is a good thing for us.”
Stefanik’s future is unclear, but she’s lucky to have made it this far.
Rep. Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican helping female candidates across the country, said she’s identified only five to seven top-tier female candidates who could join the next Congress. The list includes retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, 48, of Arizona; Mia Love, 38, in Utah; and former House aide Barbara Comstock , 55, of Virginia.
“It’s just going to take a long time,” Wagner says of the GOP’s effort to bring more women to Washington. “This isn’t a one-cycle effort.”