Nearly hidden in a suburban strip mall in Maple Grove is a small, one-person office that Jennifer DeJournett hopes will birth a movement.
Voices of Conservative Women, three years old and with a shoestring budget this year of $40,000, is aiming to set itself up as a conduit for getting fiscally conservative women into office. There is no litmus test on social issues. Instead, the group focuses on candidates who believe in limited government, responsible budgets and free-market principles.
So far, Voices is little more than a startup. But in a year that saw dismal results for a state Republican Party that lost control of the House and Senate, Voices could boast a 70 percent success rate for the dozen women they helped launch into office.
"In a year when Republicans were getting decimated ... Republican women, they did their job," DeJournett said.
Republicans don't lack for high-profile women politicians. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin still looms large on the political scene, and Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann is one of the best-known political figures in the country. But while Democratic women candidates have an array of organizations devoted to their success, Republican women have slimmer pickings. In 2012, the GOP also saw its support among women shrink, with polls showing that aggressive stands on birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage may have cost them.
DeJournett said Voices' decision to ignore social issues allows the group to have broader conversations with candidates and donors without the emotional litmus test of abortion or marriage politics. Even their signature colors reflect the group's economic focus: green and gold.
"If you don't have funds in your pocketbook, a lot of your decisions are made for you," DeJournett said.
DeJournett and her friends formed the group after learning how little support there was for women like them.
By 2012, the group was sending out volunteers in critical races, raising money and building a network of supporters. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, an adviser, helped hawk corn at the group's Iowa Straw Poll booth. Pat Anderson, a former national committeewoman and a senior adviser to the group, helped snag them coveted seats at a presidential debate.
This year they drew support from Stanley Hubbard, of Hubbard Broadcasting, which owns KSTP-TV. Hubbard gave $10,000 to the group's sister organization, the Women's Victory Fund.
"I think our good friends on the Democratic side of the aisle ... they have a lot of interest in promoting women's issues, so why shouldn't the Republican side of the aisle?" said Hubbard, who says he is not a Republican but a fiscal conservative and social liberal.
Overall, 2012 was a banner year for women in Minnesota, who won a record-setting 67 seats in the Minnesota Legislature. But nearly two-thirds of those were DFLers. Republican women will hold eight seats in the next Senate and 16 in the House, making up less than 12 percent of the 201-member Legislature.
DeJournett is buoyed by the rise but said she wants faster progress. She said she knew from the outset the group would have a tough slog, but figured, "If we fail, you can't do worse than nothing."
Koch said she signed on as an adviser a few years ago. "It was about encouraging women and really is the only conservative group out there that I could say is speaking for me," she said. Koch said she helped the group tap her network of people in politics to help "broaden the circle." Now, Koch said, she talks to DeJournett as a friend and adviser nearly every day.
But Voices remains a bit of an outlier in the GOP political marketplace.
"There isn't that kind of outside-the-party infrastructure and there isn't that kind of leadership within the party structure that has that as part of its priority," said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics.
On the Democratic side, large networks for women candidates rose up years ago around support for abortion rights. Over the last two decades, EMILY's List has mushroomed into a fundraising powerhouse for Democratic women who support such rights. The group WomenWinning has done the same for female candidates of both parties in Minnesota for more than 30 years, although most of their support now goes to DFLers.
"We were founded by a group of half Democratic and half Republican women," said Meagan Bachmayer of WomenWinning. What's changed over the years, she said, was the GOP's increasingly strict stand on abortion rights. "The Republican Party no longer supports prochoice women in its platform," she said.
Less emphasis on gender
Successful Republican women candidates have tended to de-emphasize gender politics, and some still believe that is the right road.
"We have had women there [in politics] in very powerful places," said state Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville. "There may not be as many, but they are certainly not in the back seat." When Republicans had control of the Senate over the last two years, Fischbach served as the Senate's first female president. "I'm just a person who does their job," she said.
But others say women may need more of a boost to help the party thrive.
"The Republican stereotype is the white male in a suit," said Sen.-elect Karin Housley, who won election last month with Voices' support. "I think more women should stand up," she said in a TPT-TV interview during the race. "It's scary, but then once you get it down, I think we have so much to offer in our state."
Housley's race against former DFL lawmaker Julie Bunn in the suburbs along the St. Croix River was among the state's most competitive. A range of outside groups poured nearly $200,000 in cash into the district. A fraction of it came from DeJournett's group. Housley won by just 631 votes.
Voices also weighed in when Sen. Julianne Ortman, the Senate's first female Tax Committee chairwoman, was denied the endorsement by her own party. DeJournett said her group was bruised in the ensuing tussle, but Ortman went on to win her primary and re-election.
Ortman, of Chanhassen, said the group's early and sustained support absolutely made a difference and she used Voices' endorsement in the campaign. "One of the biggest group of swing voters is women," Ortman said. She said DeJournett's strict focus on fiscal issues, not social ones that can alienate voters, helped her campaign succeed.
DeJournett was able to count one more success in November: The 39-year-old structural engineer and mother of four won a seat on the Three Rivers Park Board.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb