Christine Cegelis

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–For political groups working to increase the ranks of women in Congress, election-year decisions are usually no-brainers: just back the female candidate in the race.

But this year, the task may not be so simple.

Just ask officials from EMILY’s List and the Women’s Campaign Fund, two Washington-based political action committees devoted to electing pro-choice women to Congress.

They had to choose between two pro-choice female Democrats in the heated primary contest to replace retiring Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who long led his party’s opposition to abortion rights.

The election, taking place Tuesday in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, pits Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both of her legs while piloting a helicopter north of Baghdad, against Christine Cegelis, a small business owner who challenged Hyde in 2004 and held him to 56 percent, his worst showing in 15 re-election campaigns.

Duckworth won support from EMILY’s List, while Cegelis won the backing of the Women’s Campaign Fund.

That these groups have a choice is a sign of changing times, said Women’s Campaign Fund president Ilana Goldman. Women are running in consistently high numbers, she said, reflecting a collective “mindshift” in which women are becoming a permanent part of the political landscape–and sometimes challenging each other.

“We see women going head to head in primaries and general elections all the time,” said Goldman. “We’re a victim of our own success and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Meanwhile, approval ratings of President Bush are at record lows, thanks to ongoing strife in Iraq, soaring federal deficits, the administration’s defense of warrant-less domestic eavesdropping, the difficult aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a turbulent beginning to a new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

If voters sour en masse on the GOP, that could be a boost for female candidates this fall, a majority of whom are Democrats, said Richard Fox, a professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Even without a Democratic tidal wave, however, Gilda Morales, a project director at the Center for American Women and Politics in New Brunswick, N.J., still predicted at least modest gains for women of up to eight seats in the House and one in the Senate.

More Women Eyeing Seats of Power

Currently 185 women are running for or considering bids for the House this election year, Morales said. At least 20 more women are running for or weighing bids for the Senate and at least 17 others are running for or interested in gubernatorial seats.

These numbers have fed hopes that women’s ranks will grow this fall.

Women, currently with 15 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, could–if they gained 16 seats–reach 20 percent of the chamber, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the Washington-based National Women’s Political Caucus, another group devoted to electing pro-choice women. That would give them the critical mass that experts believe women need to heavily influence politics and policy.

But sheer numbers of candidates do not necessarily produce net gains, Morales cautioned. The quality of the campaigns and the strength of their opponents can be significant.

One key distinction separates this election year from 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman in which women nearly doubled their ranks in the House and Senate. Fourteen years ago, 91 seats opened up amid the decennial redistricting process and scandals involving sexual harassment and congressional banking accounts. This year there are so far only 24 open seats and two special elections due to vacancies.

Incumbents Hard to Topple

Open seats represent the most promising opportunities for women because there are no incumbents. Incumbents are notoriously hard to beat because they hold significant advantages in areas such as fundraising, name recognition and media coverage.

Tammy Duckworth

At least 69 women are running as challengers against incumbents, many of whom are female, canceling out the possibility for gender gains. And many of the women in open-seat races are running against other women.

Still, this year features numerous strong female candidates in a smattering of highly contested races, giving women good reason to believe they will see their numbers in Congress grow.

Of the 32 House races rated the hottest by independent analyst Charlie Cook, at least 15 feature female candidates. Women are also running in half of the 14 most closely fought Senate races and 10 of the hottest 18 gubernatorial races.

Other signs point in the direction of a good year for women.

Only one woman in either the House or Senate–Republican Rep. Katherine Harris of Florida–is vacating her House seat this year. Harris, who as Florida secretary of state gained notoriety while presiding over the contentious recount in the protracted presidential election in 2000, is running for Senate.

And only two female incumbents in either chamber–Democrat Melissa Bean of Illinois and Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico–are considered by Cook to be seriously in danger of losing their seats. That means it is unlikely women will have to make up for lost ground.

“When women run,” Morales said, “women do win.”

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