Rep. Heather Wilson

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Ever since 1998, Democrats have tried and failed to oust Rep. Heather Wilson, a four-term Republican from New Mexico who has consistently been considered one of her party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

But Democrats say 2006 will be different. And the reason comes down to chromosomes.

This year, Democrats are putting a woman up against Wilson. New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid–who like Wilson faces no opposition in the June 6 primary contest–will be one of a potentially record-breaking number of women in races featuring female candidates from both major parties in the November midterm elections.

There are currently 27 congressional and gubernatorial races that could feature women as nominees for both the Democratic and Republican parties in the 2006 midterm elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a research organization at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, N.J. That number is sure to decline as primaries winnow out female candidates, but it could nonetheless break the record that was set in 1998, when 14 races featured women representing both major parties.

Running a female challenger against a female incumbent is a strategy that has been used for years by the GOP, said Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Rutgers center.

This year, Morales said, Democrats are following suit by encouraging women to challenge Republican female incumbents in states such as New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio and Texas. Republicans, meanwhile, are continuing to put up women against Democratic women in such states as California, Georgia, New York and Ohio.

The high number of races featuring two female candidates is a mixed blessing for women in the political arena: it gives female candidates experience and visibility but it also means that a victory will not contribute to an overall net gain among women in state or federal office.

“That’s why I always try to dampen the enthusiasm,” Morales said about the possibility of increasing the number of women in Congress this year. “A lot of these races are women-versus-women, so there is not going to be much of a gain.”

Premier Race in New Mexico

New Mexico is poised to be this year’s premier woman-versus-woman contest because it features two formidable candidates in a competitive district in a battleground state.

Attention will also focus on Colorado, where state Rep. Angie Paccione will face an uphill battle against conservative Rep. Marilyn Musgrave if she wins the state’s Aug. 8 primary contest. Ohio–home to three races this year featuring two women from major parties–will also draw attention, especially the challenge by Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy to unseat Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House.

A handful of other Democratic women are challenging entrenched female incumbents, including Veronica Hambacker of Missouri, who is running against Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, and Judy Aydelott of New York against Rep. Sue Kelly.

 Attorney General Patricia Madrid

Republicans in New York, meanwhile, may do likewise. Two prominent women volunteered to take on Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton. The first–Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro–bowed out late last year. Kathleen “K.T.” McFarland, a pro-choice moderate who served in the Defense Department under President Reagan, will face a former mayor of Yonkers, John Spencer, in a September primary.

California–the state with the highest number of female federal officeholders–is also set to see several female Republicans take on House Democrats if they win the state’s June 6 primary. Targeted incumbents are Reps. Doris Matsui, Nancy Pelosi, Ellen Tauscher, Zoe Lofgren and Loretta Sanchez.

Male Challengers Face Difficulties

The theory behind the push for more female challengers to incumbent women is that women are better able to attack another woman without being seen as mean-spirited or vicious the way former Rep. Rick Lazio was perceived in his 2000 campaign against Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for New York’s Senate seat. That year, in their first televised debate, Lazio crossed the stage and cornered Clinton at her lectern, demanding she sign a soft-money pledge, a move that left voters siding with Clinton.

A woman is better able to attack another woman without being seen as too aggressive, agreed Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Democrat who defeated two men in a March primary contest for the right to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“As a woman, if you’re yourself and you are feminine in your own way, you can be as aggressive as you want,” Radnofsky said.

That is one reason why Democrats privately say New Mexico’s Madrid has a chance at taking out Wilson, who has vanquished three men–Democrats Richard Romero, John Kelly and Phillip Maloof–in four elections.

Joe Monahan, a New Mexico public relations consultant who writes about state politics, said a candidate’s gender can affect the tone of his or her campaign–and in that way has a subtle influence on voters–but doesn’t necessarily determine the outcome of an election. “I don’t totally negate it, I just don’t see it as a be-all-end-all,” he said.

But Democrats see another, more basic reason to praise female challengers like Madrid. The presence of two female candidates neutralizes gender issues and focuses attention on the candidates’ issues and records, said Cristina Uribe, regional director of EMILY’s List, a political action committee devoted to electing pro-choice female Democrats to office. That, she said, will benefit Madrid in a Democratic-leaning district in Albuquerque.

Incumbents Still Rule

Still, there is no data to back up the premise that women have a better chance of ousting a female incumbent than a male incumbent, said Dennis Simon, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author of “Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling,” published by Routledge this year. Male and female incumbents are virtually guaranteed to win re-election–winning at rates of more than 90 percent–regardless of their challengers’ gender, Simon said. Female incumbents, he said, are in fact slightly more likely to retain their seats in re-election campaigns.

Yet, dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and anger over scandals may help female challengers defeat incumbents in greater numbers this year, Simon added.

Female challengers fare better when sitting officeholders are mired in scandal, Simon said, because they benefit from what amounts to an affirmative form of gender bias: the perception that they are outsiders, less tainted by corruption and more honest. In addition, Simon said domestic issues such as health care and education may figure prominently in this year’s elections and will play well for female candidates, who are often seen as stronger on such “kitchen table” issues.

Women are also more likely to challenge female incumbents than they are to challenge male incumbents, said Barbara Palmer, the other co-author of “Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling” and a professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C.

That is because female officeholders are not only perceived to be more vulnerable–and therefore more likely to draw challengers–but also because they serve as role models for other female political aspirants, Palmer said.

“Women see someone who is successful so they think, ‘Oh, hey, I can be successful in that district.'”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

“Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling”:

The Center for American Women and Politics:

EMILY’s List: