Kay Hagen

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women in the U.S. Senate inched up to a new high of 17 late Tuesday night, as Jeanne Shaheen won her rematch against incumbent Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire.

In North Carolina, Kay Hagan came from behind to beat incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole in a hotly contested race. Hagan was the projected winner on Wednesday with 53 percent of the vote and Dole with 44 percent, even as the state was still too close to call in the presidential balloting.

The rise in the Senate comes in a year of breakthroughs for women: large gains in the House of Representatives, Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking run for the presidency and Sarah Palin’s historic nomination as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

“I think that for women in politics, having one more (woman in the Senate) is a good thing,” said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chesterton, Md. “I still think 17 out of 100 is a low number.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was projected to win her re-election race, leading with 61 percent of the vote in Maine, beating U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, a Democrat.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., narrowly won a third term. Long-shot female challengers in Alabama and Delaware lost.

Before the election, 11 of the 16 female senators were Democrats. With the loss of Dole, a Republican, and the arrival of Hagan and Shaheen, both Democrats, there are now four Republican and 13 Democratic women in the Senate.

Second Time’s a Charm for Shaheen

Shaheen, the former governor of New Hampshire, is the first woman from the state to be elected to the Senate. Sununu eked out a victory over Shaheen in 2002 when they both ran for an open seat.

 Jeanne Shaheen

Shaheen was projected to win by several news organizations, and CNN reported her lead at 52 percent of the vote to Sununu’s 45 percent. The victory marked an ongoing shift in favor of Democrats in the Northeast, said Deckman, the professor at Washington College.

“New England is unique anyway since it’s been the land of the Rockefeller Republicans,” Deckman said, but those fiscal conservatives are moving away from the GOP. “And people hate Bush; I think Sununu has been tagged with Bush’s policies.”

Landrieu beat the GOP’s John Kennedy, a former Democrat, to hold her seat in Louisiana with 52 percent of the vote, as Kennedy, the state treasurer, trailed with 46 percent in projected returns.

Close races are nothing new for the two-term Louisiana senator, but this year was more difficult. Republicans, who have been gaining seats in the South for years, had won a string of recent statewide races in Louisiana. And many blacks left the state after Hurricane Katrina, reducing the number of Democratic voters, said Thomas Langston, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Landrieu was supposed to be one of the only vulnerable Democratic senators this year,” Langston said, adding that Landrieu was successful at steering federal dollars to the state after Katrina. “Her victory is not about national politics. John Kennedy has tried to make it about national politics, but this is very much a Louisiana election, and Mary Landrieu has been good for Louisiana.”

Upset in North Carolina

In North Carolina, Hagan, a state senator, surprised the political veteran Dole, who was running for her second term. The race drew national attention and financial support in a crucial race. Some attributed Dole’s loss to her campaign, which was criticized by some for bringing religious attacks into a contentious campaign.

In Alabama, Vivian Figures, a Democratic state senator, lost to the popular incumbent, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican, who had 63 percent of the vote. Figures had 37 percent, according to projected returns.

In Delaware, Sen. Joseph Biden won a seventh term over Republican Christine O’Donnell with 65 percent of the vote, even as he was running for the vice presidency. As the vice president-elect, Biden will vacate the seat and Delaware’s governor will appoint a replacement to serve until 2010.

Shaheen and Hagan were part of a wave of Democrats who swept into office in a campaign season dominated by an economic downturn and an anti-incumbent mood. In North Carolina and elsewhere, the popularity of President-elect Obama swelled voting rolls with younger voters and African Americans.

Pro-Choice Pick-Ups

Among the Democratic winners were at least three men who support abortion rights. Along with newcomers Hagan and Shaheen, they could play a role in upcoming Supreme Court Justice confirmations.

In the next four years at least one and up to three Supreme Court justices are expected to step down, with important implications for the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade.

Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Udall of Colorado and his cousin Tom Udall of New Mexico won open seats previously held by anti-choice senators. CNN called the races in their favor.

Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Minnesota’s Al Franken, who all favor abortion rights, were within shot of victory. But all three races were still too close to call by Wednesday evening.

Having more senators who support abortion rights could influence legislation on women’s health issues, family planning funding and opposing anti-choice legislation, said Tait Sye, a spokesperson with the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But it will have only a limited effect on the Supreme Court justice nominations expected in the next term.

“I think the most important race in that respect is the president,” Sye said, adding that presidents typically have their nominee confirmed by the Senate.

Even if Democrats reach a filibuster-proof 60 senators, it would have little effect on Supreme Court justices, said Kim Gandy, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women.

“The thing that it’s most likely to affect is the business of the Senate generally,” Gandy said. “The Senate business has ground to a halt in recent years because the Republicans have filibustered virtually everything the Democrats have introduced.”

Jon Lentz is a journalism student at Columbia University. He grew up in Nebraska, went to college in Minnesota, taught English in Romania and now lives in New York City.

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