Patty Murray

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A little more than a year from Election Day, things are looking up for almost all of the female senators who face reelection next year.

That’s a change from the beginning of the year, when political observers warned that three of the four female Democrats up for reelection could lose their seats next year. Now, pundits say those incumbents have improved their fortunes; the fourth, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland–the longest serving and highest-ranking woman senator currently in office–looks invincible.

"Both their constituents and their potential challengers realize the potential difficulty in challenging them," said Melissa Schiffman, spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a Washington, D.C., political-action committee that backs pro-choice, female Democrats. "People are kind of backing off now because they realize they are formidable U.S. senators and it’s going to be tough to challenge them on their records."

That’s good news for EMILY’s List, which pours millions of dollars into contested races for federal office in an attempt to achieve greater gender parity in Congress. They have helped female candidates attain a record 14 Senate seats, a tremendous gain since 1986, when Mikulski became the first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat in her own right, that is, without having succeeded a husband who died in office.

It’s also welcome relief for women’s groups that, earlier this year, feared that the record number of women up for reelection this year would open them up to a greater number of potential losses.

"Five are up for reelection, which kind of put a damper on things," said Gilda Morales, project manager of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, which promotes women’s leadership in public life. "It was kind of a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ kind of thing. But it looks like they may have an easier time this time around than they did in their first or second races."

Newcomers Also Run

Beyond the female incumbents, a number of newcomers will be trying to break into the world’s most exclusive club next year.

In Missouri, State Treasurer Nancy Farmer, a Democrat with an endorsement from EMILY’s List, has kicked off her campaign against Senator Christopher Bond, a three-term Republican. In California, Toni Casey, a Republican businesswoman, is vying, along with fellow GOP member and U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, to take on Boxer. Arizona Democrat Liz Michael is running against Republican Senator John McCain and Connecticut Republican Miriam Masullo is making a bid to unseat Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd.

They are, at this point, considered long shots not only because of the specific calculations of each race, but because women’s chances are statistically much lower against incumbents, who tend to be male and entrenched in office. According to Rutger’s Center for American Women and Politics, women have a 54 percent chance of winning so-called open-seat races–seats vacant or being vacated–but only a 12 percent chance of unseating incumbents.

Open-Seat Races Look Stronger

Women, therefore, are standing better chances in the races they are joining for the seats of retiring senators in Illinois, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. None of these women, however, is viewed as a slam dunk.

In Illinois, two Democratic women are among those vying to succeed retiring GOP Senator Peter Fitzgerald. They are Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who holds the same office that served as a springboard for former Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the only female presidential candidate and the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Former broadcast reporter Nancy Skinner is also in the crowded fight for that Democratic nomination.

In Georgia, two more Democratic women are among a handful of hopefuls to succeed retiring, one-term Democratic Senator Zell Miller. They are Mary Squires, a state senator, and Michelle Nunn, an activist and the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn.

In South Carolina–where Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings will step down after three-dozen years in office–Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum is running in one of the most conservative states in the South. Political observers note that Tenenbaum, a Democrat, was the leading vote-getter in her 2002 contest, making her a front runner in the primary contest.

In North Carolina, a handful of men are eyeing the seat to be vacated by Democratic Senator John Edwards, who is leaving office to focus on his presidential campaign. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who lost the Democratic nomination in 2002 to former White House chief-of-staff Erskine Bowles has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but she has not said she is interested in running this time around.

Hot Race Possible in Florida

Another competitive seat may open up in Florida, if Senator Bob Graham, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, opts not to seek a fourth Senate term. In that case, GOP Representative Katherine Harris, notorious among Democrats for appearing to block the vote recounting process during the protracted presidential contest of 2000, has said she would throw her hat in the ring.

It could be a woman-on-woman match-up if Democrat Betty Castor, a former education commissioner, wins her party’s nod. Castor also recently won an endorsement from EMILY’s List in her quest for the Senate.

While the odds of increasing their numbers in the Senate may be long, women can take solace in the fairly low risks of seeing their ranks shrink by much, if at all.

Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska, is the only female incumbent who appears in serious jeopardy of losing her seat. The moderate Republican was tapped by her father–Frank Murkowski–to serve out his term after he vacated office to serve as governor. The move angered some constituents, who have bombarded the Murkowskis with charges of nepotism. Some of the more conservative local politicians, angered that a moderate represents them in the Senate, hope to oust her in the GOP primary next year. If she succeeds in the primary, she will face a spirited campaign against former Governor Tony Knowles, one of the few Democratic to have held statewide office in the conservative state.

But with a famous surname and a polished resume, Murkowski, a lawyer, former state senator and legislative aide, has vowed to put up a good fight and, as an incumbent, is considered the early favorite.

"The big plus for her is the likely Bush margin in Alaska," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He referred to the solid victory Bush won in the independent-minded state in 2000. "There should be some coattails for her."

Incumbents Dodge Bullets

Three Democratic women have dodged political bullets this year. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Senator Patty Murray of Washington were all considered potentially vulnerable by political handicappers at the beginning of the year. Now, however, all three have moved into relatively safe territory.

Barbara Boxer

Lincoln, a freshman Democrat from the battleground state of Arkansas, was considered the most vulnerable of the three largely because she represents a state that backed President Bush in the 2000 elections. She is the only Democratic incumbent up for reelection who has not been endorsed by EMILY’s List, whose staff objects to her mixed record on abortion.

Lincoln’s prospects improved considerably when her most formidable potential opponent–Republican Governor Mike Huckabee–withdrew his name for consideration. Huckabee’s announcement followed similar GOP retreats by former Representative Asa Hutchinson–now a top official with the Homeland Security Department–and Lieutenant Governor Winthrop P. Rockefeller. That leaves Lincoln with no credible challenger as she heads into the campaign season.

Lincoln, meanwhile, gained national recognition this summer by pushing for an expansion of the child tax credit for lower-income families. At the same time, she has managed to build a sizable war chest, with $1.8 million in her bank account at the end of June.

Murray and Boxer had similar luck this year, as top-tier candidates bowed out of the race. The good news for Murray came when her toughest possible rival, and another woman–GOP Representative Jennifer Dunn–resisted entreaties from White House political guru Karl Rove to make a Senate run and instead announced that she would seek a seventh term in the House.

Murray, a two-term incumbent, won her last race with a solid 58 percent of the vote. She is now favored over her likely general election rival, five-term Representative George Nethercutt. The original "soccer mom," Murray stunned the political establishment in 1992–the so-called Year of the Woman–when she won statewide office as a self-styled ordinary "mom in tennis shoes." She has $2.4 million in the bank to Nethercutt’s $403,000.

In California, Boxer won her second term six years ago with just 53 percent of the vote, a fairly poor showing in one of the most liberal states in the country. But even as Democratic Governor Gray Davis has seen his fortunes fade since the onset of the recall campaign, Boxer–once high on the GOP target lists–is moving farther down that list. That means Republicans will likely lessen their efforts to oust her next year.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.



For more information:

The Center for American Women and Politics:

EMILY’s List:





Photography Exhibit of Female Senators
Begins Tour

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A photography exhibit showcasing women at work in the United States Senate embarked on a nationwide tour this month. The exhibit, a close-up look at the 14 women who currently serve in the what was once the quintessential boys’ club, opened this spring in Washington, D.C. and will make its way around the country over the next year, hitting cities including Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

The 38 black and white photos that comprise "Changing the Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate" feature the women in their workplace: conferring with colleagues in the corridors of the Capitol, chairing committee hearings in the Senate office buildings and holding press conferences in the Senate press galleries.

At the same time, the photos capture the unique images of feminine power. A diminutive Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, for example, confers with a gargantuan colleague in the corridors of the Capitol; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas presides over a committee hearing against the backdrop of six portraits of former chairwomen; Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas crouches between her twin sons with pen in mouth and paper in hand; and Senator Barbara Boxer of California stands on what she calls "the boxer box" to reach a microphone on a podium and address a group of constituents. A particularly memorable shot features a pair of silver buckled pumps–owned by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington–surrounded by three pairs of loafers.

Inspired by the huge strides women have made in the past dozen years in Congress, photojournalist Melina Mara started the project in 2001 to document women’s increasing impact on politics.

"There’s a much larger number than there have ever been and they’re actually lawmakers and they’re not in the kitchen," said Mara, who cut her teeth in politics as an intern to former Representative Bella Abzug.

— Allison Stevens.