Denise O'Brien of Iowa

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Female candidates are loading up the bottom of this year’s election ballots and weighting the springboard to higher office more heavily in favor of women.

“I really think you’re going to see women not only at the federal level but at the state and local level win races this year,” said Karen White, national political director at EMILY’s List, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., that has worked to build a “pipeline” of pro-choice Democratic women poised to run for higher statewide and federal office.

Female candidates for state legislative offices are at record levels, reversing a dramatic downturn in the last election cycle. This year, 2,431 women are running for state House and Senate seats, a 10 percent jump from 2004, when 2,220 women sought those seats.

Female state lawmakers are critical to gaining gender parity in the higher echelons of politics, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the Washington-based National Women’s Political Caucus. “It cannot be overemphasized: the necessity to have women represent us on a local level.”

Female lawmakers, Giesen said, serve as role models for women and girls who have political ambitions, she said.

Women are also more prone to seek higher office after first serving in local and state offices while men are more likely to jump into races without first climbing the lower rungs in the political ladders.

“Fewer women just jump into the fray and run for Congress or the Senate without some kind of background,” said Giesen. Of the 24 female House candidates endorsed this year by the National Women’s Political Caucus, 20 have held political office, she noted.

Ilana Goldman, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum in Washington, said that 86 percent of the current women in the House, who constitute 15 percent of the chamber, worked their way up from lower offices.

Plenty Seek Executive Posts

Plenty of women are also running for statewide executive offices. In addition to 10 women running for governor, 93 women won their parties’ nominations for positions such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state treasurer.

“Although that’s not a record it’s still pretty good,” said Gilda Morales, a project researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. The record was set in 1994, when 109 women won their parties’ nominations for statewide office.

According to the center, 18 women are running for lieutenant governor, 19 for secretary of state, 13 for state treasurer and 10 for state auditor. Women are also running for positions such as state controller, comptroller, superintendent of public instruction and commissioner of agriculture, insurance, labor, railroad and the general land.

Jeanine Pirro

Statewide executive offices can often serve as stepping stones to gubernatorial and federal office, which can open the door to presidential candidacies.

Throughout U.S. history, political parties have frequently turned to governors or vice presidents as presidential nominees, and they often find one who goes on to win. Of the country’s 43 presidents, 17 have served as governor. The trend has intensified in modern history; 8 of 18 presidents who have served since 1901 have been governors: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

‘Down-Ticket Dozen’

“There’s some really exciting stuff going on at the state and local level,” said Goldman, of the Women’s Campaign Forum, which has identified “the Down-Ticket Dozen,” a group of women running in some of the most competitive races for second- and third-tier offices around the country.

The list includes Rhode Island Democrat Elizabeth Roberts, a candidate for lieutenant governor who would be her state’s first female statewide officeholder if she wins this fall.

Also on the list is Iowa Democrat Denise O’Brien, a farmer, who is running for state agriculture secretary. The current secretary, Patty Judge, is now running for lieutenant governor.

Other female candidates mentioned by political action committees backing women include Jennifer Bruner, an Ohio Democrat running for secretary of state, and Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for attorney general.

EMILY’s List started a special effort to help pro-choice Democratic women seeking state and local office in 2001, when the number of female state lawmakers declined for the first time in 30 years. Called the Political Opportunity Program, EMILY’s List seeks out political candidates to train and run for office. Since the program started the group has trained 4,290 people in 33 states.

The political opportunity program helped 140 women win state and local office in 2004 and 21 in 2005, when there were fewer races. So far this year, it has helped 33 women win primary elections.

Since 2001, the number of female state legislators jumped from 1,666 to a record 1,686, or 23 percent of the total seats in state legislatures.

Perception Edge on Corruption

Goldman added that the current political climate favors women, who tend to be helped by periods of scandal because they are perceived as incorruptible, she said.

The most salacious scandal involved former Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who sent sexually explicit e-mail messages to male teen congressional pages. The scandal has spread to the House Republican leadership as news reports have revealed that GOP leaders were informed of some of Foley’s actions but failed to confront the problem.

Capitol Hill has also been rocked by a guilty plea from Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who admitted to fraud and corruption. The Abramoff affair has touched a number of congressional aides as well as Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who last week pleaded guilty to conspiracy related to his dealings with Abramoff.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, has also been named in the case, but he resigned earlier this year in the wake of charges that he violated campaign finance laws to engineer a redistricting effort to favor GOP candidates in Texas.

“What’s happening around the country is going to make it easier for women to win,” agreed White. “Women are seen as agents of change.”

Although Republicans at the national level are suffering low public approval ratings–a recent CNN poll showed voters preferred Democratic to Republican congressional candidates by a 56 to 40 percent margin–that won’t necessarily trickle down to female Republicans running in state and local races, said Pat Carpenter, executive director of The WISH List.

“All politics is local,” Carpenter said. “If there are negatives for Republicans at the national level, I don’t believe that necessarily translates to the state level.”

The WISH List is backing such pro-choice Republican women as Jeanine Pirro of New York, who hopes to be attorney general; Sandy Praeger of Kansas, who wants a second term as insurance commissioner; Christine Radogno of Illinois, who is running for state treasurer; and Lynn Daucher of California, who seeks a seat in the state Senate.

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

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

The Women’s Campaign Forum:

National Women’s Political Caucus:

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