WASHINGTON — While House Democratic women celebrated one of their best elections ever last November, Republican women lamented one of their worst.
A solitary new female Republican representative was triumphant compared with 35 freshman Democrats, many of whom arrived with a considerable splash. Female Republican membership in the House declined by 10 to a total of just 13 compared with 89 Democrats. The Republican side of the House chamber became a sea of men.
“It was a rough election,” Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, said at a recent press luncheon organized by Winning for Women, one of the emerging organizations focused on electing Republican women. Ms. Ernst saw two male House Republican colleagues from her home state ousted by two Democratic female challengers.
Still reeling from a monumental step backward — one in no small part because of women’s antipathy to President Trump — Republican women are trying to seize the first opportunity they have to begin righting their political ship in a special election in eastern North Carolina.
Advocacy groups and female lawmakers desperate to elect more Republican women to the House are rallying behind Joan Perry, a pediatrician and political novice who in late April finished second among 17 candidates to advance to a July runoff with Greg Murphy. He is a state lawmaker who is also a physician. The winner of the fall general election will succeed Walter B. Jones Jr., the longtime congressman who died in February, in a district that solidly favors Republicans.
The political arm of Winning for Women, WFW Action Fund, pumped slightly more than $200,000 into an independent expenditure that included TV and radio ads along with mailings on behalf of Dr. Perry in the first vote. It is likely to weigh in again with significant help before the runoff. The group, the political partner of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, spent more than $75,000 on voter contact in support of Dr. Perry. Multiple Republican women in the House and the Senate have endorsed and personally contributed to Dr. Perry.
In the aftermath of the 2018 wipeout, those backing her say they are determined to demonstrate that their party is not just for men.
“Republicans have historically had a problem electing and appealing to women; we don’t even need to look beyond the midterms to see that,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for WFW Action Fund. “Part of why we exist is to prove that this party is bigger than a party of old white men. But to get there, we need to make sure we’re doing a better job of giving women the resources they need to win.”
It is not going to be easy to reverse the trend. The 2018 midterm elections showed a steep drop in Republican support among suburban women — typically a core group for the party. The electoral environment was bad enough that one group that advocates more moderate female Republican candidates encouraged those considering a 2018 race to defer, fearing they would be defeated and give up on politics when they could be successful in a different election cycle.
A representative of Emily’s List, the 34-year-old organization dedicated to identifying and endorsing Democratic women who support abortion rights, welcomed the effort by Republicans to elect more women to the still male-dominated Congress.
“We understand the challenges, we understand that it takes work and we are glad they are focused on it,” said Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the organization.
But, she noted, the effort to elect more Republican women faces major obstacles, particularly the party’s strong anti-abortion stance when polls show that most Americans believe access to abortion should remain legal in most cases. That divide is likely to be underscored anew by this week’s passage of a near abortion ban by the Republican-controlled Legislature in Alabama, a measure the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, signed on Wednesday.
“They are going to run into trouble because they are trying to do this in a party that is actively going after women’s rights and has actively dismissed women’s rights,” Ms. Reynolds said.
To illustrate her point, Ms. Reynolds noted that at 13, the number of Republican women in the House is just one greater than the dozen who were serving when Emily’s List was founded in 1985.
Ms. Perez-Cubas said her organization was focused on finding female candidates who are a good fit with the districts where they are running. Dr. Perry has made her staunch opposition to abortion a centerpiece of her campaign, but Winning for Women won’t apply litmus tests, Ms. Perez-Cubas said.
“We want to see more qualified Republican women in Congress, so that might look very different in North Carolina versus in a place like California, and we’d play in both,” she said. “This just isn’t a centrist seat.”
The primary cycle has proved particularly tough for Republican women because they can lack the financial backing and name identification that male competitors have, leading groups like Winning for Women to place a new emphasis on getting into races as early as possible.
In 2018, according to the organization, 120 Republican women ran in House primaries. Sixty-seven of them were defeated. In Senate races, 22 Republican women were on the primary ballot, with 14 losing and eight winning.
After moving into the runoff, Dr. Perry also got a taste of how male candidates can benefit from their connections when Representative Mark Meadows, an influential political figure from North Carolina who leads the House Freedom Caucus and has strong ties to Mr. Trump, quickly endorsed Dr. Murphy, calling him “clearly the conservative pick” in the race.
Republicans say that the Democratic victories in 2018 show that female candidates can have distinct appeal, and that if they get the right woman into a race, they can be successful.
“Women come across as very compassionate,” Ms. Ernst said at the luncheon hosted by Winning for Women, which is funded in part by the politically active hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. Its membership has expanded significantly after it spent about $2.4 million in the last election cycle on campaigns backing more than 20 candidates, including Representative Carol Miller of West Virginia, the sole new Republican woman in the House.
But given the real challenges, enticing Republican women to enter the fray in 2020 when Mr. Trump himself will be on the ballot could prove daunting and will take significant effort by those wanting to replenish the depleted ranks in the House.