(WOMENSENEWS)–Women candidates for Congress and governorships were by and large swept under the tidal wave of support for Republican President George W. Bush in midterm elections Tuesday. Female Democratic candidates for governor in Michigan and Kansas were notable exceptions.
State Attorney General Jennifer Granholm breezed to victory Tuesday, becoming Michigan’s first woman governor and cementing her place as a rising star in the Democratic Party.
“The face of leadership doesn’t always have to look the same,” Granholm said in declaring her victory. Late Wednesday morning, with 100 percent of the vote counted, the 43-year-old Granholm had defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, 51-47 percent.
Granholm’s energy, charisma and engaging looks have marked her as a future player on the national stage. But first, she said, there was the matter of governing a state which has been beset with fiscal problems following an economic downturn and a struggling automotive industry.
Hawaii’s Linda Lingle was the only Republican woman to win her party’s primary nods in this year’s gubernatorial races; she also won her election. Lingle is nominally pro-choice, supporting parental notification laws and opposing so-called partial-birth abortions.
However, advocates hoping that 2002 would be the “Year of the Woman Governor” were disappointed by races that were too close to call until Tuesday night, when male candidates, most of them Republican, pulled away to win those gubernatorial posts. The Republican Party officially regained control of the Senate by holding onto all but one of their contested seats and defeating one Democratic incumbent.
Women did win a handful of important congressional races Tuesday, most notably in North Carolina, where Republican Elizabeth Dole was declared the winner over former Clinton adviser Erskine Bowles to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jesse Helms. Bowles had been endorsed by prominent women’s groups such as NOW and the National Abortion Rights Action League.
“Let me thank a lot of Democrats–unaffiliated Democrats,” Dole said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “Thank you, thank you!”
In Maine, Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins defeated Democratic challenger Chellie Pingree by a handy 58 percent to 42 percent. In an unusual match-up in that state’s 2nd Congressional District, anti-abortion Democrat Michael Michaud defeated pro-choice Republican Kevin Raye.
And in another Senate race considered key to women’s rights advocates, three-term New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen lost her bid to the solid conservative GOP candidate John Sununu. Shaheen had run a centrist campaign, promising to protect the environment and a woman’s right to an abortion but also supported President Bush’s tax cut and military action against Iraq.
“We came so very close,” Shaheen told supporters with tears in her eyes, after taking the stage just after 10:30 p.m. to concede defeat. “Victory was not denied us for lack of trying.”
In Maryland, incumbent Rep. Connie Morella, a moderate and pro-choice Republican, lost her seat to Democrat Christopher Van Hollen 52 percent to 47 percent. Morella, despite emphasizing her longtime independence from the increasingly conservative Republican Party and her constituent service in the district bordering Washington, was hurt by redistricting that increased the number of Democrats in her base. Van Hollen successfully made the case that Morella would be yet one more vote to form a Republican core in the House.
In another close race, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri lost to ex-Rep. Jim Talent in one of the most closely watched races of the season. Carnahan, who was appointed to fill the seat her husband won posthumously, ran a neck-and-neck race, losing by a slim 1 percent of the vote. The former congressman amassed a strong conservative record while in office supporting the ban on partial-birth abortions and the 1996 overhaul of welfare laws.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana will face Republican Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell in a Dec. 7 runoff for that state’s junior Senate seat. 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.
Landrieu is only nominally pro-choice and failed to gain the endorsement of pro-choice power brokers like Emily’s List. In a conservative state Landrieu may be vulnerable to a vociferously pro-life Terrell on abortion rights issues.
Elsewhere, Lois Combs Weinberg lost her bid to represent Kentucky in the Senate. In New Mexico, Democrat Gloria Tristani, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, lost her bid to unseat longtime GOP Sen. Pete Domenici.
Surprising Results in Hot Races
Of the 10 major-party women running for governor, three won, six lost and the result of one race– Arizona–was still unknown Wednesday morning.
Democrat Janet Napolitano was holding a slight edge in the governor’s election in Arizona over Republican Matt Salmon, but election officials there must now wait out the counting of 150,000 votes in Maricopa County.
Napolitano, trying to make history, is seeking to become Arizona’s first Democratic governor in 12 years.
An unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort on Native American reservations and in Hispanic communities was key to Napolitano’s campaign. Napolitano said she had a good feeling about the way the voting numbers were breaking and was optimistic that she would prevail.
“We know the way we’re trending and we’re very optimistic,” she said.
In Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius defeated Republican Tim Shallenberger for her state’s governorship. Sebelius, a pro-choice candidate, was heavily favored in pre-election polls against her far-right conservative opponent.
Perhaps the most surprising result of Tuesday’s elections came in Massachusetts, where venture capitalist millionaire Mitt Romney, a Republican, defeated Democrat Shannon O’Brien and two other female candidates in a heavily Democratic state. Seventy percent of the Massachusetts electorate is firmly pro-choice, according to recent polls, but Romney said he did not wish to be labeled pro-choice, according to a Boston Globe report.
In Maryland, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost to Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr. 51 percent to 48 percent after failing to win the necessary chunk of minority voters whom she had offended in choosing a running mate who was a former Republican at a time when African Americans were pushing to be on the ticket. (Ehrlich had chosen an African American as his running mate well into his campaign.) Townsend is the first Kennedy family woman to run for office and lose in a state that leans Democratic by 2:1.
Three Women Governors Step Down, Three Will Step Up
The 36 gubernatorial races had offered the best opportunities for women in part because there were 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 seeking re-election were considered politically vulnerable at a time of slow economic growth. Indeed, many incumbent administrations are beset by unexpected budget shortfalls that forced them to make unpopular spending cuts and rethink tax cuts.
This year also featured 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 re-elected in 1998. Their terms expired 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. With three of those governors stepping down this year, the public gained as many new women governors Tuesday as it will lose when sitting officials step down.
A Woman’s Place Is Apparently Not in the House, or Senate
The outlook for women at the congressional level, however, was not so rosy. Women currently control 13 percent of the Senate and 14 percent of the House, a number that did not change much on Election Day. Controversial former Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris won a Florida House seat by defeating Democrat Jan Schneider, an ally of Bill Clinton. The other female House candidate from Florida, Karen Thurman, a Democrat, lost her race. Overall, early returns indicated Democratic women lost four seats and Republican women gained four in the House, keeping the total at 14 percent.
Women in California saw an unusual victory: For the first time in U.S. history, two sisters will serve together in Congress. Linda Sanchez will join her older sister, incumbent Democrat Loretta Sanchez, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The sisters celebrated their victory together on election night.
“How sweet it is,” said the younger Sanchez as she took the podium to accept her victory over Republican Tim Escobar.
“We have made history tonight,” she added. “Tonight we have proven there is nothing more powerful than families that work together.”
A newcomer to elected office, Linda Sanchez, a Democrat, worked as a labor attorney and union leader prior to running for the House. She will represent California’s new 39th Congressional District located in southeast Los Angeles County.
Loretta Sanchez celebrated her fourth election to office. She represents California’s 47th Congressional District located in Orange County. Before defeating conservative Rep. Robert Dornan in 1996, Sanchez worked in finance and ran her own business. Currently, she is the ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee and has served on the Education and the Workforce Committee since 1997. Sanchez is also a member of the Blue Dog Democratic Caucus, a moderate group that backs a balanced federal budget.
Most other women lost their bids for congressional seats this election. Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, who some observers predicted would lose, solidly defeated Republican Henry Wojtaszek.
“It’s still very difficult for women to run,” said Susan Medalie, executive director for the Women’s Campaign Fund, a political-action committee devoted to electing pro-choice women.
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 also added to the difficulties women face this year, Medelie 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.”
Julie Leupold is a freelance writer based in New York. Additional reporting by Barbara Chavez, Shauna Curphey, Nancy Day, Nancy Cook Lauer, Asjylyn Loder, Judy Schram, Tom Schram, Peggy Simpson and Marie Tessier.
For more information:
Center for American Women and Politics:
Women’s Campaign Fund: