Jennifer Lawless

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Will 2006 be the next “Year of the Woman?”

Early signs indicate today, on the 85th anniversary of U.S. women gaining the right to vote in federal elections, that the answer might be yes; at least for pro-choice candidates.

Currently, women hold 15 percent of the seats in the House and Senate, a percentage that has risen gradually since the first and last “Year of the Woman” in 1992, when women’s share of congressional seats jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent.

That percentage could jump higher next year, if early recruiting numbers at EMILY’s List–a leading political action committee dedicated to putting pro-choice Democratic women in office–are any indication. Pro-choice Democratic women are expressing interest in statewide and federal campaigns in unprecedented levels this early in the cycle, EMILY’s List officials say.

In addition to following numerous incumbents seeking reelection, EMILY’s List is already tracking at least 27 potential candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and eight possible candidates for the U.S. Senate, according to Karen White, the group’s national political director. That gives the group a good chance to back more challengers in 2006 than it did in the 2004 election cycle, when it gave formal endorsements to 13 House challengers and three Senate challengers.

Numbers are also strong in campaigns for statewide executive offices such as lieutenant governor and secretary of state, said EMILY’s List spokesperson Ramona Oliver.

A Lot of Opportunity Seen

“There seem to be so many women at this point in the game,” White said, referring to the 2006 elections. “Here we are in the middle of the off-year, and they’re really excited about running. I think that really says a lot about the opportunity women have to win office.”

Other women’s political groups also reported high levels of enthusiasm.

Barbara Palmer, a professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C., and political director of a political action committee for female candidates under 40, also reported earlier-than-usual interest among potential candidates.

So did Pat Carpenter, executive director of The Wish List, a political action committee in Alexandria, Va., for pro-choice Republican women. “The fact that women are stepping forward this early in the cycle is very encouraging to organizations like The Wish List,” Carpenter said. “The number of women officeholders had leveled off last cycle. We are excited and optimistic that that is going to change.”

Against Exuberance

Gilda Morales, an analyst at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, cautioned against irrational exuberance, saying she has not yet detected unusually high levels of interest.

More than 130 women–including incumbents and challengers–have been mentioned as definite or possible candidates in races for the U.S. Congress, according to The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks congressional and gubernatorial races. The report also names nearly 30 women
–including five incumbents–as potential gubernatorial candidates in 2006.

Those numbers are “about right” for this point in the two-year election cycle, Morales said. “Those are pretty good numbers. It means we’re not falling backward. We’re even, and most likely will be higher.”

Palmer added that there are no “structural” signs that would portend a good year for women, such as a preponderance of open seats, new district lines or a scandal endangering large numbers of incumbents.

But the policy scene–rife with divisions over the war in Iraq, the president’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, the economy, and a looming debate over John Roberts, the conservative judge nominated to the Supreme Court–could energize women, she said.

Widespread Dissatisfaction

That was the case also made by White, who cited an EMILY’s List poll released in June showing widespread dissatisfaction with the government, particularly among women.

The poll showed that women, who voted for Bush last year in unusually high numbers, are returning to the Democratic fold. Women back Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by 11 points, the poll showed, suggesting the reemergence of the so-called gender gap, a term coined 25 years ago to describe gender differences in voting habits. Democrats won by four points among all voters, the survey showed.

“Women, not just voters, are seeing a real opportunity and are stepping up to the plate,” White said. “They really want change and they feel the Republicans have really overplayed their hand. The climate is really good for women who want to run for office.”

The survey followed a May poll that also showed a resurgence of the gender gap. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the gender gap narrowed to seven percentage points in 2004 from 10 percentage points in 2000.

“The agenda is far from fixed,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducted the survey, said at a May conference on women’s voting habits. “But I think you’ll see in the 2006 elections it will be the women who determine the agenda and it will be the women who determine the results.”

No Concession on GOP Gains

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, would not concede that the GOP will lose gains they made in 2004. Republicans, she said at the May conference, have carefully studied the women’s vote, a move that paid off in 2004, and don’t intend to forget all they’ve learned in the upcoming election cycle.

“In 2006,” Conway said, women will “stick with what they know because the alternative side is not that much better or prettier.”

Republicans, she added, will continue to attract women who vote on so-called family values–such as efforts to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage–as well as women who own small businesses, a rapidly growing constituency. Conway also said that as attention turns toward national and homeland security, more women will side with Republican candidates.

But the war in Iraq may well push women to the Democratic Party, said Irene Natividad, chair of WomenVote USA, a nonprofit organization working to increase turnout among among women voters. She pointed to the galvanizing effect of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq who has camped near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, to protest the war.

“It’s sort of like Anita Hill putting a face on sexual harassment,” Natividad said, referring to the woman who sparked an uproar in the summer of 1991 when she accused Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the Supreme Court, of harassment.

“That was not, if you will, an issue in the forefront, and then all of a sudden during the hearings it became a turning point to how we view this issues.” Natividad said that Cindy Sheehan has provided an outlook for what she described as a generalized sentiment that is “taking hold among many Americans, especially women.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

The Center for American Women and Politics:

EMILY’s List:

The Wish List: