This Could Be Year of the Woman Governor

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Susan Medalie

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s groups are anxiously watching a number of campaigns for state and federal office in a year that could bring historic advances for women gubernatorial candidates or could result in minimal changes in Congress and in the statehouses.

Few of the races featuring women candidates are viewed as sure bets, leaving political observers sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of an election day that, in addition to determining the balance of controlin Congress, could leave women in seventh heaven or down in the dumps.

“We’re so worried!” Susan Medalie confided in a tone bordering on giddy nervousness. As executive director for the Women’s Campaign Fund, a political-action committee devoted to electing pro-choice women, Medalie and her group have endorsed 60 candidates this election cycle but are zeroing in on 22 of the most promising. “The races we are particularly interested in are very close,” she conceded.

Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily’s List, another political-action committee that helps elect pro-choice women to office, agreed that this election year offers many opportunities for women but few slam dunks. “It’s very tight,” she said. “All of these races are within the margin of error. It could go any way quickly at this stage.”

Governor Races Are the Ones to Watch

Despite the unpredictable nature of this year’s elections, women’s groups are holding out hope that 2002 could be the “Year of the Woman Governor.” A large number of women won their party’s gubernatorial nominations this year, leaving women’s groups confident that more women than ever will win the keys to the governors’ mansions on Tuesday.

The 36 gubernatorial races offer the best opportunities for women in part because there are a high number of open-seat races–the kind of contests that result most often in gains for women because neither candidate enjoys the advantages of incumbency.

At the same time, many of the incumbent governors who are seeking reelection are considered politically vulnerable at a time of slow economic growth. Many incumbent administrations are beset by unexpected budget shortfalls that forced them to make unpopular spending cuts and rethink tax cuts.

This year also features a large number of women candidates who already hold statewide offices, historically viewed as women’s surest stepping-stones to the top executive offices. In 1994, many women candidates won statewide offices such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general and were reelected in 1998. Their terms expire this year, leaving them well-positioned to climb to the next rung of the political ladder.

Five states currently have women governors: Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, Montana and New Hampshire. And even though three of those governors are stepping down this year, the number of women governors could double to 10 on Election Day. Women’s groups can certainly bank on a victory in Hawaii, where two women candidates–Republican Linda Lingle and Democrat Mazie Hirono–are squaring off.

Eight Democratic women also won their party’s primaries, but only one, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, is considered the strong frontrunner. Aside from Hawaii’s Lingle, no other Republican women won their party’s primary nods this year.

Five Democratic women–in Arizona, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island–are engaged in gubernatorial races that are too close to call, while two–in Alaska and Arkansas–are waging uphill battles against Republican men. Alaska’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, however, has surged in recent weeks, giving women a ray of hope in that conservative northern state.

Women May Lose Ground in U.S. Congress

The outlook for women at the congressional level, however, is not so rosy. Women currently control 13 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House, a number that is not expected to change much on Election Day.

“It’s still very difficult for women to run,” Medalie said, noting that few women opt to run for Congress for two reasons: because they have a more difficult time raising the resources necessary to fund campaigns and because they must overcome enduring stereotypes that women lack the credentials to serve as lawmakers and executives. And because women must balance family and career concerns, they also take longer than their male counterparts to decide whether to run.

The looming war in Iraq has also added to the difficulties women face this year, Medalie noted. “In times of war, people say, ‘We want a man because they’re tough and competent. We love women because they’re caring and compassionate.’ But this is wartime.”

After jumping from nine women senators to 13 in the 2000 elections, women could see minimal gains or even losses in the Senate this year. Three incumbent women are up for reelection, and of those, one–Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri–is at critical risk of losing her seat to a male Republican. Carnahan, who was appointed to fill the seat her late husband won posthumously, is running neck-and-neck with ex-Rep. Jim Talent in one of the most closely watched races of the season.

Meanwhile, freshman Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, are favored to win second terms Tuesday. But political observers are reluctant to rule out the possibility of upsets in what could become tough races against female challengers, Louisiana Elections Commissioner Suzanne Terrell and state Sen. Chellie Pingree in Maine.

Landrieu, who won her first Senate race in 1996 by a .5 percent margin, faces what could prove to be a daunting task in her GOP-leaning state. She must win at least 50 percent of the vote against Terrell and two other Republican challengers in order to avoid a runoff election next month. (Under Louisiana’s unusual election laws, if no candidate captures at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters–regardless of party–advance to a Dec. 7 runoff.)

One woman who is likely to win is wife of former presidential candidate and two-time Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole, well positioned to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Jesse Helms in her race against former Clinton aide and investment banker Erskine Bowles. And in New Hampshire, outgoing Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is locked in a statistical tie with her opponent, Rep. John Sununu, in the race to replace GOP Sen. Bob Smith.

Meanwhile, a half dozen women Republicans, Democrats and Independents are running long-shot Senate bids in Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Virginia and Wyoming. None of these women are expected to win.

Women are not poised to make significant inroads in the House this year, either. The 62-member Congressional Women’s Caucus has already lost six members this year. Reps. Eva Clayton, a North Carolina Democrat, Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, and Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican, plan to retire at the end of the 107th Congress. And Democratic Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Lynn Rivers of Michigan lost their primary races earlier this year. In addition, Democratic Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii died in September.

At the same time, three of the four most endangered House incumbents are women, according to respected political analyst Charlie Cook. These are Reps. Connie Morella, a Republican from Maryland; Anne Northup, a Kentucky Republican; and Florida Democrat Karen Thurman. And four more–GOP Reps. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia; Heather Wilson of New Mexico; and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut; as well as Indiana Democrat Julia Carson–are considered potentially vulnerable this year.

Re-Districting Did Not Give Women a Boost This Time

The political outlook is a disappointment for women’s groups hoping that, after a decade of incremental gains, 2002 would mirror the last post-redistricting year in 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman.”

But this year lacks the unique set of circumstances that converged 10 years ago to help the number of women in the House win a record 24 seats, nearly doubling the size of the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

That year, a House banking scandal involving checks cashed in under-funded congressional accounts prompted a large number of incumbents to resign or lose their primary races. The number of retirements also peaked in 1992, when 65 members retired after a reapportionment process that endangered many incumbents and created new majority-minority districts that served as a springboard to office for several minority women.

Consequently, 1992 featured 91 open seats–considerably more than the 62 seats that opened up this year–and women rode a politically-charged anti-incumbent wave sparked in part by the controversial Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.

But in a year marked by a surge in civic pride and patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only 44 incumbents have said they will retire at the end of their terms in January.

State legislators also dampened the prospects for women congressional hopefuls during the decennial redistricting process. Instead of creating new opportunities for women and minorities, state lawmakers by and large strengthened incumbents and narrowed the playing field.

Still, women have reason for optimism this year.

California Democratic Rep. Diane Watson joined the women’s caucus earlier this year when she won a special election to replace the late Julian Dixon, also a Democrat.

The remaining 49 women incumbents are virtually guaranteed reelection. Five women are cruising toward victory. These include Democrats Linda Sanchez of California and Denise Majette of Georgia, and Republicans Candice Miller of Michigan, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Katherine Harris of Florida.

Another 14 women are locked in tight races against incumbents or in open seats and about 35 women are not considered credible candidates.

The most promising women recruits include Democrats Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota, ex-Rep. Jill Long Thompson of Indiana, Ann Hutchinson and Julie Thomas of Iowa, Martha Fuller Clark of New Hampshire and Anne Sumers of New Jersey. On the Republican side, Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado and ex-Rep. Helen Bentley of Maryland are waging strong campaigns.

“This could be a great year for women or women could actually get some bad breaks,” said Rob Richie, executive director at the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Aside from potential pickups in the governors’ races, Richie said that at best, women could expect to pick up one member in the Senate and make single-digit gains in the House.

“For those hoping for parity, the mountains are still very, very far off.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

The Center for American Women and Politics:
http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~cawp/facts/cawpfs.html

The Women’s Campaign Fund:
http://www.wcfonline.org/wip/stats.html

Emily’s List:
https://www.emilyslist.org/contribute/candidates.cfm

Also see Women’s Enews, January 31, 2002:
“N.Y. Insurance Denies Access to Reproductive Healthcare “:
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/801/

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