Senator-elect Maria Cantwell

SEATTLE (WOMENSENEWS)–Maria Cantwell, a pro-choice Democrat who financed her own campaign, has defeated her deeply entrenched, heavily financed conservative opponent to become the new Congress’s 13th female U.S. Senator.

Cantwell’s election by a paper-thin margin, still to be confirmed by a routine, machine recount, will reshape the Senate and, quite possibly, American politics. The former Congresswoman is likely to become the 50th Democrat in the Senate, opening the way to discussion of a historic power-sharing arrangement between the two parties.

With her election, the number of women in the U.S. Senate increases from nine to 13, a jump of almost 50 percent. Cantwell will join Democrats Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan–all of them pro-choice. Cantwell joins Washington’s other woman Senator, two-term Democrat Patricia Murray, who campaigned hard on Cantwell’s behalf.

Further, Cantwell has gone down in the annals of U.S. women’s hard-fought political campaigns, replete with both defeats and victories. Taking on incumbents and winning is acknowledged to be tough, but Cantwell, 42, defeated incumbent Slade Gorton, 72, a man who began his political career when she was born.

When she found that despite her experience, strengths and popularity she was unable to raise the millions needed to compete, Cantwell decided to do it herself. She dipped into her own Internet fortune coffers and contributed $9.6 million to her own campaign. That made the difference.

After almost three weeks of nail-biting vote tallies that saw her close but still trailing Republican Gorton, Cantwell finally pulled ahead by close to 2,000 votes. Now, all that is awaited is a routine machine recount because of the closeness of the race. She defeated the three-term Republican incumbent by less than .08 percent of the votes cast.

"It’s been a long haul for everyone," said Paul Berendt, chairman of Washington’s Democratic Party. "We’ve been in full campaign mode since the elections," he added.

"This has been like the twelfth round in a nine-round boxing match."

Cantwell Finally Uses the ‘V’ Word: Victory

Washington’s recount, unlike the one in Florida, is not expected to change the numbers reported by the state’s 39 counties. The Secretary of State has until Dec. 7 to certify the election results. Washington is the only state that has not yet officially announced the winner of its Senate seat.

Cantwell had avoided the media while the vote was up in the air, but she finally told a news conference, "I am confident that the state’s exceptional election workers got the job done and that the new results will show that I will be victorious." She thanked Gorton for his many years of service.

Her campaign has been one of the closest and most closely watched Senate races. And, the mood has changed dramatically among Cantwell’s supporters and women’s groups that watched their candidate trail until the last few thousand absentee ballots were counted.

"We are very, very excited," said Carroll Twiss, co-chair of the Washington State Women’s Democratic Caucus. "Having two women represent us will be wonderful for the women and men of Washington. As a Congresswoman, she took on controversial issues. She learns quickly. She’ll be able to take on very tough issues, and come up with very clear decisions on how to proceed."

Even the famously non-partisan League of Women voters was inspired by Cantwell’s election to the nation’s upper house of Congress, saying that it was an indication of the state’s support of women in the political process.

"The people of Washington are looking at women candidates the way they are looking at any men candidates," said Liz Perini, president of the Washington State League of Women Voters. "Gender is becoming less and less an important factor," she said, noting that women also ran well in the state legislature. Thirty-seven of its 98 U.S. Representatives are female, or 38 percent.

Power-Sharing Suggested by 50-50 Democrat-Republican Split

Cantell’s race was closely followed for reasons besides its lengthy vote tally: With Cantwell poised to become the 50th Democrat in the Senate, her party is openly suggesting power-sharing with the Republicans.

If Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman win, however, Leiberman will relinquish his Connecticut Senate seat to the Republican governor’s Republican appointee. The Senate then would have a 51-49 Republican majority. But strict party-line votes are unusual in both parties.

The balance also affects reproductive rights, since some Democrats are tepidly pro-choice and some Republicans are strongly pro-choice, despite their party’s strongly anti-choice platform.

Cantwell also has made history in the ongoing campaign finance debate. Able and willing to finance her own campaign, she publicly and adamantly refused to accept any political action committee contributions or any unregulated money from the Democratic Party. Her ability to match the Republican candidate’s campaign funds was considered a powerful factor in her successful campaign.

"She fought a tough, tough race," said her future colleague, Sen. Murray, commenting before victory became apparent. "Her campaign has been meaningful for women in the state of Washington. Cantwell’s presence in the Senate is critical should Texas Gov. (George W.) Bush be elected."

Cantwell Competed Financially, Took on Intrenched Incumbent

Around the country, Cantwell was praised both for her ability to compete financially with her Republican opponent and for her determination to take on a longtime incumbent.

"This is a major step for women in politics," said Mary Hawkesworth, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "This is an example for women around the country," she added.

Beyond the finance issue, Hawkesworth said, Cantwell’s race is significant because she won against an incumbent, a difficult feat, matched only by Democratic Senator-elect Stabenow in Michigan. Adding to its import, Cantwell faced another woman in the primary, a sign that more qualified women are in the pipeline and ready to run for higher office.

Cantwell differed with Gorton over many issues, ranging from abortion rights to gun control. Cantwell is thoroughly pro-choice in all key areas, while Gorton opposed government financing of abortions and supported parental consent laws. Native Americans targeted Gorton for his stands that they believed interfered with their rightful demands for land and water rights.

Cantwell’s pro-choice views give encouragement to women’s groups concerned that Gov. Bush, who is anti-choice, would set back the cause of full reproductive rights if elected. According to Democratic Caucus leader Twiss, "It’s a relief to have her in office."

Kim Palchikoff is a free-lance writer based in Seattle, focusing on women’s issues, health and multi-cultural issues. She was a free-lance writer in Moscow for 10 years.