California attorney Linda Sanchez, Democratic cand

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–California attorney Linda Sanchez will know by tonight if she’s on her way to making history in November.

The younger sister of U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, another California Democrat, Linda Sanchez is running a strong campaign for a newly drawn congressional district in today’s primary in California. If she wins today, and if she and her sister win in the general election in November, they will become the first pair of sisters ever to serve in Congress.

But while Linda Sanchez has a good chance of victory, the outlook for women congressional candidates overall is not quite so rosy.

After a decade of incremental gains, the number of women in the House of Representatives could actually decrease on Election Day for the first time in more than two decades, a situation that dismays many women’s groups that hoped this midterm election season would mirror 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman.”

That year women candidates won a record 24 seats and nearly doubled the size of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. But this year women can hope to pick up at best only a handful of seats–a far cry from the heady predictions of success that women’s groups made at the onset of this election cycle, when they saw the prospect of as many as 100 competitive seats as an auspicious omen for another post-redistricting election year.

But because this year features a relatively small number of open seats, and because a fairly high number of women House members are retiring or are considered politically vulnerable, women could also see their numbers plateau or decline on Election Day.

The political landscape “is a bit disappointing,” said Gilda Morales, program coordinator of information services at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Incremental changes are going to continue on the order of two or three seat pickups,” she said. She added however, that women could lose one or two seats overall.

Fewer Open Seats Make Another ‘Year of the Woman’ Unlikely

The gloomy political climate comes after a banner year for women in the House and Senate. Newly elected Minority Whip Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, now holds the highest-elected position of any woman in history. And last year, Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, became the first women ever appointed to chair the Democratic Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees.

But 2002 lacks the unique set of circumstances that converged 10 years ago to help the number of women in the House to grow from 28 to 47. That year, 22 of 39 women won open-seat races, two of 41 challengers ousted incumbents and 23 of 26 incumbents won reelection.

“From what I have been able to gather, it’s probably going to be a good year for incumbents,” said Pat Carpenter, executive director of WISH List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice Republican women to office.

A pro-incumbent atmosphere is bad news for women, who generally have a 54 percent chance of winning open-seat races but only a 12 percent chance of unseating incumbents, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. Open-seat races represent the most promising opportunities for women in part because they attract more women candidates than do campaigns against incumbents. Mostly male and notoriously difficult to unseat, incumbents tend to scare off congressional hopefuls of either gender.

Ellen Malcolm, executive director of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that focuses on electing pro-choice Democratic women to Congress, agreed. “I’m not sure how much change we’re going to see,” she said. “We will see some competitive primary races . . . but most opportunities will be in the governors’ races.”

The number of open seats is less than half of what it was in 1992, when the political climate prompted a large number of incumbents to resign or lose their primary races. That year 91 seats opened up amid the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and a House banking scandal involving checks cashed in under-funded congressional accounts.

Fewer Retirements Leave Fewer Chances for Women Candidates

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. That year, the number of retirees was far higher than the average number in a post-redistricting election year, which over the past six decades has hovered around 40. This year, however, only 24 incumbents have said they will retire and two of them are women–Reps. Eva Clayton, a North Carolina Democrat, and Marge Roukema a Republican from New Jersey.

The retirement rate is low number for a variety of reasons. The reapportionment process strengthened most incumbents and forced few out of office; party leaders used the close party division in Congress to persuade members to seek at least one more reelection bid; and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also swayed some otherwise fence-sitting members to seek another term.

Consequently, political observers expect the number of open seats to reach about 40 this year, leaving few opportunities for the 60-odd women who have said they are considering congressional bids. In addition to the bleak political landscape, a number of the 59 women who currently hold congressional office are considered politically vulnerable. Reps. Lynn Rivers, a Democrat from Michigan, and Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, have been drawn into the same districts as Democratic incumbents and will be forced to run against them in the general election. Rivers faces a daunting race against House veteran Rep. John Dingell, while Johnson faces a tough challenge race against Rep. James Maloney.

Several other women are in danger of losing their seats. They include Republicans Anne Northup of Kentucky, Connie Morella of Maryland and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Reps. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, Pennsylvania Republican Melissa Hart and a number of others also could have tougher races this year than they faced in the past.

Women’s groups are banking on one pickup with Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican made famous for her role in deciding the contested 2000 presidential election. A staunch conservative, Harris is considered a slam-dunk winner in 2002, an outcome that would come as a disappointment to pro-choice women’s groups.

Rays of Hope in a Competitive Election Year

Bright spots exist still, say women’s groups who see several promising candidates running strong campaigns in crowded primaries.

On the Democratic side are: Linda Sanchez, state Rep. Martha Fuller Clark of New Hampshire, state Sen. Elaine Richardson of Arizona, state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman of West Virginia, state Rep. Nancy Kaszak of Illinois, attorney Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Janice Cole of North Carolina.

Republicans see as potential prospects: Candice Miller of Michigan, Lynette Boggs McDonald of Nevada, Sydney Hay of Arizona, Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Christine Ferguson of Rhode Island, Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida, Carolyn Grant of North Carolina and Melissa Brown of Pennsylvania.

“We thought there would be more open seats,” Morales said. “But that hasn’t materialized. It was a bit disappointing to see and it’s disappointing to see women going against entrenched incumbents. But there is a possibility out there.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

The Center for American Women in Politics:

EMILY’s List:

WISH List:

Abortion Ad Swings Voters in Calif. Gubernatorial Primary

By Rebecca Vesely
WEnews correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–Former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s lead in the race to be the Republican candidate for California governor has evaporated following the launch of a vivid television ad campaign by incumbent Gov. Gray Davis showing Riordan likening abortion to murder.

Less than a month ago, Riordan, who has cast himself as a moderate who supports abortion rights, appeared to have the nomination locked up, enjoying a lead of 33 percentage points over his nearest competitor, conservative businessman Bill Simon.

Now Simon, who is anti-choice, has the support of 37 percent of likely Republican voters, compared to 31 percent for Riordan, according to a Field Institute poll taken a week ago. About 23 percent of the likely Republican voters surveyed were undecided.

Davis, a Democrat whose popularity has been threatened by his handling of the state energy crisis and a budget shortfall, introduced the $8 million ad campaign in late January. One of the ads uses video from a 1991 interview in which Riordan says he feels so strongly about abortion that he believes it is “murder.” The ad has clearly resonated with voters in a state where abortion rights are a major political issue.

Riordan still leads Simon among women voters by 36 to 26 percent. To maintain that lead, Riordan has in recent days attacked Simon for the lack of women in top positions in his campaign. “He’s living in another decade,” Riordan told reporters last week.

Rebecca Vesely is a freelance writer in San Francisco and former editorial director at ChickClick, a Web site for teen-age girls.