Women in the Senate haven’t come very far since the Year of the Woman.
This campaign season, there’s a potential that the number of freshmen women senators could tie the largest class ever — five in 2012 — and surpass the largest class of freshman women from one party — four Democrats in 1992.
That’s because in 2016 there are six races where Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call Race Ratings have female candidates rated with a distinct chance of winning, and three other races have women in reach if this election shifts more strongly Democratic.
“I don’t think there’s a downside to running in a presidential election year,” American University political scientist Jennifer Lawless said, referencing the fact that female candidates are disproportionately Democratic.
Republicans have to defend 24 of the 34 Senate seats on the ballot this year, leaving ample opportunities for female Democrats.
In 1992, hailed as the Year of the Woman in the Congress, current Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of California, and Patty Murray of Washington were elected, along with former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who was the first and only black female to serve in the Senate (as well as the first black Democrat in the chamber’s history). At the start of the 103rd Congress in January 1993, there were a total of six women in the Senate, with former Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas joining a few months later.
“The Democrats have been trying to build up diversity in the Senate particularly when Patty Murray was DSCC chair (the 2002 and 2012 cycles),” said Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
There have been strides, to be sure. The first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and the first Asian-American female senator, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, were elected in 2012.
This year, California is the most likely state to send a woman to the Senate. Attorney General Kamala Harris is a near-lock to move to the general election in their jungle primary to replace the retiring Boxer, with Rep. Loretta Sanchez battling a number of Republicans to make it to the ballot in November. It’s a safe Democratic seat, and both would make a demographic mark on the chamber. Sanchez would be the first Latina to join the Senate, and Harris would become the second black woman.
Upcoming races to watch
Two states feature strong female contenders in competitive upcoming primaries.
In Pennsylvania, Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf and adviser to Al Gore, is battling former Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost to current GOP incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey in 2010. This seat, rated Toss-Up/Tilt Republican by Roll Call, is a main DSCC target. This week, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. endorsed McGinty over Sestak . Toomey has consistently held a narrow lead in polling against the Democrats.
In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards — who has benefited from big spending by EMILY’s List — is in a close race with Rep. Chris Van Hollen to succeed Barbara A. Mikulski in a safe Democratic seat.
Both states’ primaries are on April 26.
Regarding EMILY’s List, Swers said: “They’re willing to play in primaries as where the party organization tries to stay out of the primaries. They can come in with their money and training and help put some muscle behind female recruits and play in races that are already strong Democratic seats.”
Where the fight is
The closest races where women are encroaching on Senate wins are in Nevada, Illinois and New Hampshire, with high-profile Democratic recruits in each.
Catherine Cortez Masto, former Nevada attorney general, has Harry Reid’s backing and will likely face Rep. Joe Heck on the Republican side.
Illinois’s Rep. Tammy Duckworth is seeking to overturn GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk in November, and the moderate Kirk is especially vulnerable if Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are at the top of the ticket for the GOP. Duckworth would be the second Asian-American woman and the second female veteran in the Senate (GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa broke the veteran barrier in 2014). In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan will likely face incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a rare showing of two women squaring off for the Senate in November.
Arizona, Iowa and North Carolina could become competitive, but for the moment these seats are more likely to stay in the hands of Republicans — all held by men — than go to their Democratic challengers. Former state Rep. Deborah Ross is challenging GOP Sen. Richard Burr, former lieutenant governor Patty Judge is giving Sen. Charles E. Grassley his first true challenge in decades, and Ann Kirkpatrick will likely face Sen. John McCain in Arizona.
With Hillary Clinton for the Democrats — potentially making history as the first female at the top of the ticket for a major party in the presidential election — and either Trump or Cruz for the Republicans, experts Lawless and Swers see traditional women’s issues like equal pay legislation and paid family leave getting heavy play overall this cycle.
“That’s not to say that can’t happen when you don’t have a female candidate at the top of the ticket, but female candidates can be somewhat more credible when they make that a priority,” Lawless said.
What was novel back in 1992 is now pretty commonplace, but with only 20 women in the 114th Congress’ Senate, there’s still a lot of catching up to do.
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