Rep. Donna Edwards

BETHESDA, Md. (WOMENSENEWS)–Donna Edwards’ June election to the U.S. House of Representatives was neither fast nor easy.

In 2006, Edwards tried to unseat Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland, but she lost by fewer than 3,000 votes. “When I lost, I wanted to crawl under my bed,” Edwards said earlier this month at the annual conference of the Washington-based National Organization for Women held in Bethesda, Md. “But I woke up.”

Wynn, an African American who voted in 2002 to authorize the president to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, was too moderate for the heavily Democratic district in suburbs east of Washington, D.C., Edwards asserted.

Ousting him, she said, deserved a second try.

So Edwards, a lawyer and anti-domestic violence activist, staged a repeat performance of her 2006 campaign. Voters responded enthusiastically, giving her a 22-point victory over Wynn the second time around.

Wynn resigned in June, triggering a special election for the seat. Edwards won with 80 percent of the vote and now serves in Congress.

Edwards’ persistence is unusual for female candidates, who tend to shut down the campaign office and return to pre-race routines after losing political contests, according to Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

“Women kind of disappear after they lose,” Morales said.

Long Road to Victory

After losing once, running a second race in the same district or state for the same office may seem futile. But often, a political loss is the first leg on a longer road to victory, an axiom well understood by male candidates ranging from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. Indeed, repeat candidates often benefit from higher name recognition, established fundraising networks and experience gained from rookie mistakes.

“No question there’s an advantage because you know what you did right and what you did wrong the last time,” said Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY’s List, a leading political action committee in Washington that backs pro-choice Democratic women.

It’s a lesson Edwards said needs to be learned by women. “For so many women who run for political office and lose, you may never see that person again. That needs to change.”

Edwards’ message appears to be catching on.

Sixteen women who lost congressional races in 2006 are running again in 2008, a record number of female comeback bids for congressional office that could mark a new era in the evolution of the female political candidate, Morales said.

Historically, women have sought political office after the death, resignation or retirement of husbands or male relatives, as was the case with presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton. That pattern began to change in recent decades, and today, many of the 88 women currently serving in Congress established political careers without following in the footsteps of male relatives.

Now women are running on their own initiative, sometimes for a second or third time.

New Outlook, Repeat Candidates

Several of the women who ran in 2006 have a better shot this time around, Parker said. He pointed to two women, both endorsed by EMILY’s List, who are running for the same seat they lost before but under more favorable circumstances this time.

In 2006, Linda Stender of New Jersey and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio ran against GOP incumbents, both of whom are retiring this year. Because Stender and Kilroy have already run, they enjoy the edge in name recognition, fundraising and experience.

As of mid-July, Stender had $1.2 million in the bank, far more than the $81,000 reported by her GOP rival, state Sen. Leonard Lance. Kilroy also had $1.2 million on hand; her opponent, state Sen. Steve Stivers, had $880,000, according to CQ Politics, an online political journal.

Several other women are mounting rematches against the same incumbents they fought in 2006, but under more favorable conditions this time around, Parker said.

In Washington state, Democrat Darcy Burner is running again against Republican Dave Reichert, to whom she lost in 2006. Burner has a better shot this year because she can ride on the coattails of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is expected to carry Washington state, Parker said.

And in New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is running a second time for the United States Senate against GOP Sen. John Sununu, whom she lost to six years ago. This time, she hopes to capitalize on a Democratic tide that swept the state in 2006, when Democrats took control of both houses of the state Legislature for the first time since 1874.

All four races are considered too close to call by Charlie Cook, author of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks congressional races.

“There are real reasons these women candidates are running again,” Parker said. “They’re not just running to run.”

Playing the Odds to Win

Other female Democrats also hope to take advantage of a more favorable national political climate.

Daily tracking polls of registered voters across the country conducted during the month of July by Gallup give Obama a 1- to 9-point lead over GOP nominee John McCain.

And 51 percent of registered voters surveyed in a national poll conducted July 25-27 by Research 2000 said they would favor a Democratic candidate for Congress, while only 37 percent said they would back a generic Republican candidate.

Female Democrats like Victoria Wulsin of Ohio and Sharon Renier of Michigan hope to capitalize on that trend. Wulsin is taking on GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt and Renier wants to oust Republican Tim Walberg.

Both women came close to victory in 2006, although none more so than Christine Jennings, a Florida Democrat who came within 373 votes of beating Republican Vern Buchanan. In that race, more than 18,000 ballots were not counted due to voter machine malfunction, giving Jennings hope that she will win this time around.

Meanwhile, two Republican women–Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Anne Northup of Kentucky–who lost their seats in the 2006 midterm elections are running to reclaim them now.

All of these races are considered competitive by Cook.

Other women are running longer-shot repeat campaigns, including Republicans Sydney Hay of Arizona, Deborah Honeycutt of Georgia and Charel Winston of California, and Democrats Judy Feder of Virginia, Diane Benson of Alaska, Nikki Tinker of Tennessee and Cristina Avalos of California.

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

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