WASHINGTON — For congressional Republicans, this month's elections ushered in the year of the woman — literally.
West Virginia's Carol Miller will be the only Republican woman entering the 435-member House as a newcomer in January. She'll join what may be the chamber's smallest group of female GOP lawmakers since the early 1990s — as few as 13 of at least 199 Republicans. Democrats will have at least 89.
Numbers like those have Republicans searching for answers to the glaring gender disparity in their ranks — and fast. The concern is that Democrats' lopsided edge among female voters could carry over to 2020, when President Donald Trump will be seeking a second term and House and Senate control will be in play. If the current trend continues, Republicans risk being branded the party of men.
"You will see a very significant recruiting effort occur" for female candidates, said David Winston, a pollster who advises GOP congressional leaders. "It's a natural conclusion. An environment has got to be created where that can be a success."
Evidence of the GOP gender gap was just as clear in the 100-member Senate, where Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn will be the only Republican freshman. If Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith wins a runoff later this month there will be record-setting seven GOP women in the Republican-run Senate. But even that record is less than half the class of 17 Democratic women, which includes two freshmen.
The search for answers leads to some familiar places. President Donald Trump's fraught history with women, combined with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, helped motivate Democratic women to seek office but did not appear to have the same effect with GOP women, politicians and analysts say. More broadly, the president's brash style doesn't sit well many female voters or potential candidates.
"Women don't like the tweets," said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group. "I don't know how to tone down the rhetoric. If I could have a fantasy, one wish, that would be my one wish."
Women backed Democratic candidates over Republicans on Election Day by a telling 57
Strategists note the issue isn't just about current personalities; it's about party infrastructure.
"We as a party have to make recruiting women candidates who can win a high priority," said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for Winning for Women, a fledging GOP group that tries bolstering female Republican candidates. She added, "Unless people in leadership really make it a priority, I don't think it will happen."
A record number of women ran for the House as major-party candidates this year. But Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 3 to 1, according to AP data, and Democratic women were more likely to win their primaries.
Of those contenders who ran in November, 183 were Democrats, the most ever, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Fifty-two were Republicans, a near-record but a fraction of female Democrats running.
That partisan imbalance was aggravated by Democrats' superior campaign infrastructure for helping female candidates.
Winning for Women, created in early 2017, says it spent more than $1 million helping female candidates for the recent election. That and other GOP groups assisting female candidates couldn't match Democrats' 33-year-old Emily's List, a well-financed organization that poured tens of millions into primaries and general elections and provided recruiting, training and other services to female candidates.
"Democrats have been doing a much better job of getting women elected," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Asked to explain her success against other female candidates' defeats, West Virginia's Miller sent an email lauding Trump and other Republicans and GOP women's groups and saying "liberal special interests" had spent heavily to defeat Republican women. Officials at the White House and the GOP did not provide answers to requests for comment.
Republicans have displayed a sensitivity this year to their overwhelmingly male numbers. That includes hiring a female prosecutor to question Kavanaugh's chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and its all-male Republicans.
Within days of the elections, Republicans vaulted women into congressional leadership positions.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., daughter of former
Cheney said Republicans must better communicate that their policies on national security, the economy and health care are best for men and women. She called it "fundamentally offensive and paternalistic" to think women's votes are driven by their gender.
Asked on CBS' "Face the Nation" last week whether Trump's rhetoric alienated women, Ernst said, "We could do a better job of communicating clearly that we support women."
Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
Alan Fram, The Associated Press