Melissa Bean

(WOMENSENEWS)–A record 139 women ran for the House of Representatives this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Of that group, the 57 incumbents won reelection and eight newcomers won seats. In addition, three women retained their seats in as non-voting delegates representing the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

Though three congresswomen are stepping down this year, a record 65 women will serve in theHouse when the 109th Congress convenes in January.

The number of women in the House may increase even further, as Democrat Willie Mount, running in Louisiana’s 7th District, faces a runoff election on December 4 against incumbent Republican Charles W. Boustany. In addition, the race for New York’s 27th District between Republican Nancy Naples and Democrat Brian Higgins has not yet been called. Naples is calling for a recount.

In the Senate, all five female incumbents up for reelection held onto their seats, though all five female challengers lost their races. The number of women in the Senate will hold steady at 14.

Reminiscent of Year of the Woman

Though the election saw some disappointments for female candidates, some experts said this year’s gains hark back to the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when the number of women in Congress jumped from 28 to 42.

“Any time women are successful [in their bids for office], it’s great,” said Kathleen Casey, associate director at the Rutgers center. She noted that many female candidates ran in races where their opponents were already well-entrenched. “What we need now are more women in competitive districts–districts where they can actually win.”

Only one female congressional candidate defeated an incumbent this year: Democrat Melissa Bean of Illinois. Bean won in the largely Democratic state’s heavily Republican 8th District, defeating Philip Crane with slightly less than 52 percent of the vote–about 9,000 votes.

Bean, who is pro-choice, has a background in the high tech industry and has never held elected office. She challenged Crane in 2002 and lost. Her victory this year came as a surprise to many. Crane had served as the 8th District’s representative since 1969. In a letter to her future constituents on her campaign Web site, Bean promised to work for small businesses and to focus on health care and the environment without settling for the “false ‘either/or choices’ that have been forced upon our country and our community.”

Wins in Battleground States

Seven women won open seats in the House, including three in battleground states and one Democrat in a heavily Republican southern state.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a pro-choice Democrat, swept Florida’s 20th District race, defeating anti-choice Republican Margaret Hostetter with about 72 percent of the vote.

In Wisconsin, Gwen Moore became the state’s first black representative to Congress after beating anti-choice Republican Gerald Boyle in the 4th District. Moore, who is pro-choice, is a former state senator.

Two pro-choice women battled it out in Pennsylvania’s 13th District for a seat left open when Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, a Democrat, left to run an unsuccessful race this year against longtime Republican senator Arlen Specter. In the end, Democrat Allyson Schwartz defeated Republican Melissa Brown. Schwartz is a veteran of Pennsylvania politics, having served as a state senator for 14 years, while Brown is an ophthalmologist who had run for office before unsuccessfully.

A pro-choice Democrat, Cynthia McKinney, turned Georgia’s 4th District bright blue with her victory on Tuesday, reclaiming the seat she had held from 1992 to 2002 but lost after she was vocal in her support of an investigation into the September 11 attacks, a move unpopular with Georgia Republicans.

McKinney, who is African American, defeated another African American woman, Republican Catherine Davis, who had not held elected office. In her acceptance speech, McKinney voiced her opposition to what she called the “war machine” and the “corporate propaganda machine” of America and she pledged to work to bring people of different cultures and ethnicities together.

Few Gains in Senate

In the Senate, four of the five female incumbents won handily, while a fifth faced a somewhat tougher contest. Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska withstood a challenge from former governor Tony Knowles in a race that was closely watched around the country. Nepotism was a guiding theme of the race, as some questioned the legitimacy of Murkowski’s position: She was appointed to the post in 2002 by her father, who left to become governor.

Murkowski, who is a self-described pro-choice Republican, has a mixed record when it comes to abortion rights. She voted for a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions and received only a 14 percent pro-choice rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Outside of congressional races, three women ran for governor this year: Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Christine Gregoire of Washington. Minner, a Democratic incumbent, won her race, while Democrat McCaskill lost. Democrat Gregoire’s race against Republican Dino Rossi is still locked in a dead heat. If she wins, Gregoire will join nine other female governors, already a record high.

Robin Hindery is a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–
Female Winners in the Election 2004:Congress and Governor: