Christine Jennings talks with Florida voters.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Overlooked by political oddsmakers for most of the 2006 election cycle, a number of obscure female congressional candidates are surging in their final sprints to the Nov. 7 finish line and improving the odds that women will make significant gains in the House of Representatives on Election Day.

One of this year’s fastest dark horses is Christine Jennings, a Florida Democrat who hopes to succeed Rep. Katherine Harris, a Republican who gained notoriety during the protracted 2000 presidential bid when she served as Florida’s secretary of state.

Harris won a House seat two years later but vacated it to mount a challenge this year to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Political scientists say Harris’ Senate bid is doomed, thanks to a series of campaign gaffes, high staff turnover, and a series of unusual statements such as her comment in August: “If you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.”

Jennings has turned out a better performance in her race to take over Harris’ seat. Once considered a long shot in a typically GOP district, Jennings now has an edge over her rival, wealthy car dealer Vern Buchanan, according to Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst who tracks congressional elections.

Jennings, a retired banker, released a poll last month that put her ahead of Buchanan by 11 points, well outside the poll’s five-point margin of error. Buchanan told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that his own internal polls show him trailing Jennings, but by only three points, within his poll’s margin of error.

The Florida race is one of about a dozen sleepers featuring female challengers who in the final weeks of the campaign season are bursting on to the national political radar screen.

‘Intersection of Opportunity’

“You’ve got this great intersection of opportunity, environment and an engaged electorate that are just coming together to create just tremendous opportunities for women,” said Ramona Oliver, spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a Washington-based political action committee that funds pro-choice Democratic women.

Opposition to the war in Iraq and corruption on Capitol Hill has put a national wind at the backs of Democratic candidates, many of whom are women, she said.

Most of the sleeper races involve Democratic women challenging Republican House incumbents. Political analysts have found no evidence of late-breaking Senate races involving female challengers.

According to Cook, among those suddenly in neck-and-neck House races are Darcy Burner of Washington state, who is taking on Republican Rep. Dave Reichert; Nancy Boyda of Kansas, who is running against Republican Rep. Jim Ryun; and Tessa Hafen of Nevada, who is working to oust Republican Rep. Jon Porter.

At the beginning of the 2006 election cycle, these women stirred scant interest because they were attempting such a tough feat: ousting a sitting lawmaker. In most election years, more than 90 percent of incumbents win re-election.

On top of that, Burner and Boyda are running in districts that tilt Republican.

Now, just a few days before Election Day, all three are stirring the pulse of political oddsmakers such as Cook, who says the races are too close to call.

Eleventh-Hour Charges

Another group of Democratic women are making eleventh-hour charges against GOP incumbents initially considered shoo-ins.

Ohio Congresswoman Deborah Pryce.

These include Ellen Simon of Arizona versus Rep. Rick Renzi; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York versus Rep. John Sweeney; Linda Stender of New Jersey versus Rep. Mike Ferguson; Judy Feder of Virginia versus Rep. Frank Wolf; and Francine Busby of California versus Rep. Brian Bilbray.

Meanwhile, Democrat Jill Derby suddenly has a serious shot at an open seat in a solidly Republican district outside of Las Vegas, according to Cook.

The rise of these Democratic female challengers isn’t good news for all women; several are posing threats to female incumbents. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, who as chair of the House Republican Conference is the GOP’s highest ranking woman, is a prime example. Once considered a safe bet for re-election, Pryce is now in increasing danger of losing her seat to Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy.

“We are definitely watching our incumbents in a year when Democrats think they can take control,” said Pat Carpenter, president of the WISH List, a political action committee in Alexandria, Va., that supports pro-choice Republican women. Protecting Pryce, she said, is one of the group’s top priorities.

Sudden Jeopardy for Some

Several other Republican female incumbents are also in sudden jeopardy. They include Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, who is fighting for political survival against Democrat Angie Paccione, and GOP freshman Jean Schmidt, now in danger of losing her seat to Ohio Democrat Victoria Wulsin.

Meanwhile, another handful of Republican women are now viewed as very vulnerable. They are Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Thelma Drake of Virginia, Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, Anne Northup of Kentucky and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania.

Despite the potential losses among Republican women, women overall are still likely to make the biggest gains in the House of Representatives since the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, said Gilda Morales, a project manager at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

That year, women picked up a net 19 seats in the House and three in the Senate, nearly doubling their ranks in both chambers. In elections since then, women have made incremental gains, picking up between one and seven new female members.

This year, she predicted gains of between 12 and 15 women in the House and one or two in the Senate.

“It looks like a very good year,” Morales said, adding a dose of skepticism: “We never say great.”

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:

Democratic Party, Women’s Vote Center:

Republican Party, Women’s Team: