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How Stefanik helped bring record number of GOP women to Congress this year

Rep. Elise Stefanik gives a victory speech on election night, Nov. 3, at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls. (Provided photo — Christopher Lenney, Watertown Daily Times)

As the dust settles on the 2020 general election, Republicans are on track to bring in a record number of women to Congress for their party.

After a term with just 13 Republican women in the House — the lowest number in years — there are now at least 28 new or returning Republican women headed to the Capitol. There are also at least eight Republican women headed to the Senate.

Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who represents New York’s 21st Congressional District, has been given much credit for her role in helping those women win their elections with her political action committee E-PAC, or Elevate PAC. Of the 28 first-time House candidates endorsed by E-PAC, 16 won their races this year, with three races yet to be called.

“This is the success story of the 2020 election,” Stefanik said during an interview Monday. “(The year) 2020 has widely been hailed as the year of the Republican woman.”

That’s an about-face from 2018, when Republicans were headed into the new Congress with the lowest number of women in their caucus since the 1980s. That the party was at a low point in female representation worried Stefanik and prompted her to launch E-PAC that year.

She faced some pushback from other members of her party. When she first launched E-PAC, then-head of the official Republican Congressional Recruitment Committee Rep. Thomas E. Emmer Jr., R-Minn., told political news site Roll Call in 2018 that he believed E-PAC’s strategy of getting involved in primary races was a mistake. Stefanik fired back, tweeting on Dec. 4, 2018: “I wasn’t asking for permission.”

Emmer’s position wasn’t universal in the party. Stefanik said Republican leaders like House Minority Whip Rep. Steve J. Scalise, R-La., and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin O. McCarthy, R-Calif., were early supporters of E-PAC, and saw the problems the party was having with female candidates early on.

Stefanik said she thinks this year proves the success of E-PAC and its model of supporting candidates in both primary and general elections. On each endorsee, E-PAC gave the maximum dollar donation for both the primary and general elections: $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general.

Not only did E-PAC donate money itself to each candidate, but the organization also capitalized on donor lists developed by Stefanik’s own campaign for re-election.

“What was interesting for me this past cycle was, as the impeachment coverage was on a national level, I was able to build one of the most in-depth small-dollar donor lists of any member in Congress, and we were able to utilize that grassroots support nationally,” Stefanik said.

Stefanik said the E-PAC team would send out messages to that donor list, calling attention to the other Republican women on other tickets across the nation, and was able to raise more than $1 million in small-dollar donations to E-PAC endorsed candidates.

Besides financial support, Stefanik and E-PAC also offered counseling and campaign assistance to endorsees, sharing tips on how to run a successful campaign.

“While it’s informal, sometimes the most important part of our program is helping answer questions, helping think through campaign strategy, helping make sure they have a strong team,” she said. “Just answering the basic questions that candidates, especially first-time candidates have as they work through what was a very tumultuous election cycle.”

When selecting candidates to endorse, Stefanik said E-PAC uses a merit-based system. Candidates must meet specific metrics, which includes raising at least $250,000 in the first quarter after announcing their candidacy.

“The reason why that’s important is I want to see how strong they will be as candidates in building their support and donor base at the grassroots level before making that investment,” she said.

Stefanik noted raising the initial funds for a campaign is often the hardest step in running, and races oftentimes require millions of dollars for a candidate to be competitive.

She said a strong campaign team is also a requirement before a candidate can be endorsed by E-PAC. Basic details like budget, field operations, digital infrastructure, communication methods, voter data collection and analysis should be nailed down before a candidate can be seriously considered for endorsement and support.

“I want candidates to know what the strategy is and the pathway to victory,” she said. “I think that early work is important for candidates to be able to win ultimately in the general election.”

Stefanik said she also speaks to potential endorsees, to get a sense of their mission, their drive and their reason for running. After meeting with hundreds of candidates and having spent nearly six years in office herself, Stefanik said she thinks she’s an excellent judge of who is best suited to elective office, and most likely to win their race.

“I’ve met with hundreds and hundreds of candidates, and it’s pretty clear to me which candidates have a fire in their belly and are driven by their mission to serve their community, to focus on public service and represent their constituents,” she said.

Stefanik said she believes her strict vetting process is part of the reason so many E-PAC endorsees have gone on to win their races this year. Even with all the support E-PAC provides its endorsees, Stefanik is clear in saying it’s the candidates who deserve credit for their wins.

“The number-one reason why these candidates won is the candidates themselves,” she said. “They ran exceptional races that were focused on their districts, and they told their personal stories in very compelling ways.”

While some in the Republican Party may have doubted E-PAC in 2018, Stefanik said she thinks all doubts have now been put aside.

“I think success creates more success, so I think the fact that the model worked this cycle means that there’s a lot more support and understanding,” she said.

Stefanik said she believes the successes for Republican women this year match a wider move by the party to become more reflective of the demographics of the country at large. She noted how there are now more veterans, African-Americans, Hispanic people and people whose families immigrated from formerly communist countries in the Republican congressional delegation this term.

She said she hopes the increased number of women in the party will allow the Republican Party to be even more effective in Congress.

“I have found that women are very effective legislators and policymakers and are very focused on serving their constituents and their districts,” she said. “I think each one of these women, future members of Congress, are going to be effective legislators and policymakers on their committees.”

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