Murkowski, courtesy of

(WOMENSENEWS)–Five female incumbents running for the Senate will be trying to secure their few, but record number of, seats. While four appear to have a good hold on their seats, one faces significant challenges.

With only 14 women currently in the Senate, the candidates represent a substantial portion of women’s overall representation in the upper house. The odds are on their side; female Senate incumbents win over 80 percent of the time, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

Most of these women–Democrats Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Patty Murray of Washington and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas–sit comfortably ahead in the polls. But one– Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska–is on shakier ground.

Murkowski’s father appointed her to the Senate in 2002 when he was elected governor. The move made many question her claim to the seat, even though she’s served three terms in the Alaska House of Representatives. Murkowski must first win the August 24 primary before she can face tough Democratic candidate Tony Knowles, former governor of Alaska, in the general election. Some wonder if Alaskans’ resentment at what they see as blatant nepotism will work against her.

“If the seat was vacant and she was running for it, she’d stand a better chance of being elected than if she wasn’t appointed,” said Larissa Wright-Elson, a high school teacher who has lived in Anchorage for 10 years. “I don’t think most Alaskans dislike her, but a lot aren’t happy with her father,” explaining that they don’t like her father’s legacy and the way she got her post.

An attempt to distance herself from her father may explain the campaign signs Wright-Elson sees on her neighbors’ lawns, showing “Lisa” in large print and a teeny “Murkowski” underneath.

Changes of Position

Wright-Elson added that she’s frustrated by the way Murkowksi has changed her position by weakening her pro-choice stance, for instance–to better fit the Republican Party’s more conservative line. But others say she may not be conservative enough to appeal to voters in the primary, where her opponent, Mike Miller, has attacked her stance on issues such as choice.

Miller, who is anti-abortion, is attacking Murkowski for her support of Roe v. Wade–the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established that most abortions were private decisions–and for Medicaid-funded abortions when she was in the Alaska state legislature. But Murkowski also voted last year for the so-called partial-birth abortion ban–which makes no exception even for the health of the mother. She also supports the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, legislation passed earlier this year which makes the harming of a fetus a separate federal offense in a violent crime against a pregnant woman, but has no provision for harming pregnant women.

Her mixed record on choice may make the primary a tough one, predicted Jennifer Duffy, the Senate editor of The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter based in Washington, D.C., that analyzes U.S. elections and campaigns. “Murkowski comes right out and says she’s not pro-life or pro-choice and votes for what makes sense,” she said. “It’s not a black and white issue for her. That’s why she has a primary.”

But Murkowski is leading in the polls. According to a recent poll by Ivan Moore Research, 65.8 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-ballot-choosing independents chose her over Miller who received 22.6 percent of the vote.

Murray Faces Anti-Choice Stalwart

Murray is also up for a competitive race in the general election. The two-term senator, who began her political career as a concerned parent protesting preschool budget cuts and became the first woman to represent Washington in the Senate–faces U.S. Representative George Nethercutt, who has logged a solid anti-choice record during his 10 years in Congress.

“Washington State is very highly contentious and many members of the Bush administration and family have gone to campaign for Nethercutt and help build the war chest,” said Siobhan Oat-Judge, communication manager for Emily’s List, the Washington, D.C.-based political-action committee that backs pro-choice, female Democrats. “But in all the polls Murray is still stronger.”

In June, Murray led the polls with 49 percent, versus Nethercutt who was at 34 percent, according to SurveyUSA.

Lincoln, the youngest woman elected to the U.S. Senate, is expected to win in Arkansas in November, but has only mixed support from women’s groups. Because of her mixed record on choice, she’s the only incumbent not endorsed by Emily’s List. Although she voted against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and supports Roe v. Wade, she favors the ban on so-called partial birth abortions, which is now being challenged in court.

She is also one of six Democrats who voted to confirm James Leon Holmes to the federal bench in Arkansas on July 6. Holmes, who wants abortion outlawed in the United States, has compared pro-choice advocates to Nazis and the chances of a rape victim becoming pregnant to snow storms in Miami. He has also interpreted the Bible as requiring women to be subservient to men.

Assessing Criteria and Constituencies

The Women’s Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that supports pro-choice women is nonetheless endorsing Lincoln. “Other groups don’t support her,” said Rachel Dobin, deputy political director of the fund, “but she’s a much-needed voice in a state that hasn’t always been supportive of choice. You can’t expect the same thing from a woman in South Dakota or Arkansas as New England. There are different criteria and constituencies.”

Boxer, Murray and Mikulski’s track records show no shades of gray on choice and other women’s issues. They’ve all received 100 percent pro-choice voting records from the National Abortion Rights Action League during their time in Senate, except for one year when Boxer got 99. “No one would question the credibility of these women regarding women’s issues,” said Duffy.

With 18 years behind her, Mikulski is the longest-serving female senator. On her Web site she says that she “helped tear down the ‘Men Only’ sign that used to hang above the Senate door.” Since then she’s fought to protect women against domestic violence, encouraged research on women’s health issues and authored acts to improve women’s health care.

Boxer and Murray have done no less in their two terms in Senate, voting alongside Mikulski and bringing women’s issues to the agenda. Murray helped write the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which created new federal laws, expanded existing programs and created grant programs to respond to violence against women. Boxer has written acts to improve women’s health care and to increase local after-school programs.

Despite their political diversity, their minority status in the Senate holds the five candidates together, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics Walsh.

“They still manage to get together to have dinner, they still have the experience of being female members of the oldest men’s club in America. If these women are re-elected it means there will continue to be women speaking in their own voice in the U.S. Senate.”

Bio: Juhie Bhatia is a writer for Women’s eNews and a freelancer writer in New York City.

For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics

Emily’s List

Women’s Campaign Fund