WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: Newly elected members of the House of Representatives pose for an official class photo outside the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. Newly elected members of the House are in Washington this week for orientation meetings.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
GOP women struggled in 2018. Can the party fix it?
03:50 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee made history this week when they questioned William Barr during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to become the next attorney general.

Ernst and Blackburn are the first Republican women to serve on the powerful panel and the hearing was the committee’s first in the new session of Congress. Their appointment to the committee is one of the gains made by Republican women in the 116th Congress.

But GOP women have also faced significant setbacks in the new Congress. One of the most notable is that the number of elected GOP women shrank dramatically in the House of Representatives.

House Republican women take a hit and some Republicans sound alarms

There were 23 Republican women serving in the House in the last session of Congress. Now there are only 13 House GOP women lawmakers.

There are 35 freshmen House Democratic women, but only one freshman House GOP woman: Carol Miller of West Virginia.

The first woman was elected to Congress in 1916: Rep. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican. Yet since then, Republicans have made up only about 35% of all women who have been elected to Congress.

In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, some Republicans are sounding alarm bells and arguing that the GOP isn’t doing enough to reach out to women.

“There were quite a few women in Congress that didn’t return,” said former Republican Rep. Mia Love, who lost her own House race in the midterms and is now a CNN commentator. “It’s not just recruiting, but also supporting, and once they’re there, helping them.”

“Women are in the back seat in the Republican Party right now,” said Rina Shah, a Republican consultant who has worked on recruitment efforts for GOP women candidates at the state and congressional level.

“Despite the head of the Republican Party being a woman, that’s not enough,” said Shah, who is also the co-founder of the Women’s Public Leadership Network, an organization that supports women in seeking public office. Ronna McDaniel is the current chair of the Republican National Committee.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans, says that it is “aggressively” working to recruit a diverse slate of candidates for 2020.

Some House GOP women are also taking action.

Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York launched a super PAC on Thursday dedicated to electing more Republican women in 2020 after the failure to increase the number of women in the House of Representatives in 2018.

“We are facing a crisis level of Republican women in Congress” Stefanik said at the launch event.

Stefanik recently stepped down as head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the first woman to hold the position, in order to launch her new Super-PAC, E-PAC.

Speaking about her role during the 2018 midterms, Stefanik lamented the poor success rate of the female candidates she recruited. Of the women she recruited last cycle, she said “unfortunately about half did not make it through their primaries.”

At the launch event, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy similarly emphasized a desire to elect more Republican women in 2020.

“We need more women in Congress, especially on the Republican side,” he said, adding, “And when we do, I think we’ll be in the majority again.”

Senate expands ranks of GOP women — and new GOP women join leadership

There have been some bright spots for Republican women in the 2018 midterms and the new Congress.

In the Senate, the ranks of GOP women lawmakers expanded. In the 115th Congress, there were six Republican women in the Senate. Now, there are eight Republican women senators serving.

Several of the Republican women senators of the 116th Congress also made history in the 2018 midterms.

Republican Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, is the first female Republican senator from Arizona.

Republican Marsha Blackburn has the distinction of being the first female senator from Tennessee.

And Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi.

In addition to joining the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ernst of Iowa has also now become a member of Senate GOP leadership as vice chair of the Senate Republican conference.

Republican Rep. Liz Cheney was elected to House GOP leadership as chair of the House Republican conference.

And Miller, the sole freshman Republican woman in the House, will now be part of the House Republican whip team, which helps count votes and advance the priorities of House Republican leaders.

The political landscape for GOP women with President Trump

Some argue that President Donald Trump has created a more challenging political landscape for Republican women.

“I think this president has made it very difficult for Republican women to just say that I am who I am, this is what I believe in, because what he’s done is made us have to explain why he says what he says,” said Shah of the Women’s Public Leadership Network.

Of course, there are plenty of Republican women in Congress who are closely allied with the President and his agenda and high-profile Republican women who routinely defend the President against criticism.

Republican National Committee chair McDaniel has, for example, described the President as a “champion of women” and said that “he recognizes that we add to the conversation.”

Neri Martinez of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project described the challenge facing women who want to run for office in general terms.

“The majority of women want to figure out how they’re going to win before they say yes, and a lot of times men will say yes and then figure out how they’re going to win later,” Martinez said.

“It’s often said that you can’t be what you can’t see,” she added.

CNN’s Lauren Fox, Adam Levy and Ethan Cohen contributed to this report.