Could 2012 Be Another “Year of the Woman” in the Senate?

by Paul Hogarth on March 5, 2012

Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee – followed by 52 Senators giving Clarence Thomas a lifetime Supreme Court appointment – fueled a backlash that elected Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley-Braun, Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray to the U.S. Senate. 1992 was a “year of the woman” that tripled the number of woman Senators, and twenty years later the upcoming election may yield a similar result. The GOP House hearing on contraceptive funding demonstrated how out of step Republicans are with America, and Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke may once again result in more women – who are still only 17% of the U.S. Senate today – being elected. Already, Democrats are running an impressive slate of progressive women this year – Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Chellie Pingree and Mazie Hirono, to name a few – that may capitalize on this anger. In a year when Republicans had been favored to re-take the Senate, their War on Women may prove to be an Achilles’ heel.

After Republicans failed to re-take the Senate in 2010 despite winning the House, political observers had agreed that 2012 would be more favorable. Democrats must defend 23 of the 33 Senate seats up this year, with seven of their incumbents retiring – versus three open seats on the Republican side. By sheer math alone, odds were the GOP would win back the Senate. But a weak Republican presidential field, along with a number of strong progressive woman candidates, could save the Senate for Democrats and help President Obama’s second term.

Massachusetts: Elizabeth Warren:

No Senate race will be more closely watched, and is a higher priority for progressives, than the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. Republican Scott Brown won a special election upset in January 2010 after Kennedy’s death, and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren is a darling of the netroots. While the Obama Administration was under constant pressure from the Tim Geithners to let Wall Street off the hook, Warren oversaw the creation of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – only to be denied the opportunity by Obama to run that agency.

Currently, polls show the race is neck-and-neck. Elizabeth Warren was going to be a #1 priority for progressives anyway, but the Republican War on Women has given this race an added level of importance. And Brown’s sexist comment that he made about Warren last October will surely come back to haunt him.

Wisconsin: Tammy Baldwin:

In 1998, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to Congress (Barney Frank didn’t come out until after he was elected.) Now, she plans to make history again as the first openly gay U.S. Senator – running to replace retiring Democrat Herb Kohl. Despite noise made by more conservative Democrats to enter the race, the Madison progressive quickly proved via polling that she was the most electable candidate – and has since cleared the Democratic field.

Wisconsin was already going to be important for Democrats this November, with the pending recall of Governor Scott Walker. With Baldwin as the Senate nominee, progressives now have another opportunity to send a message to Republicans – by electing a proud open lesbian.

Maine: Chellie Pingree

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe shocked the political world last week with her announcement that she won’t be seeking a fourth term in November. The GOP bench in Maine is thin; Snowe and her Senate counterpart, Susan Collins, are popular because voters view them as independent – whereas many Democrats have been patiently waiting for one of them to eventually retire.

Progressives are rallying around Congresswoman Chellie Pingree – and with Maine’s other Congressman Mike Michaud having declined to run, Pingree is now the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. A solid progressive who headed Common Cause, Pingree may be – given Snowe’s retirement – an ideal candidate for Democrats if 2012 is a “year of the woman.”

Hawaii: Mazie Hirono

In 2006, Mazie Hirono became the first Buddhist elected to Congress – representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, i.e., the whole state outside of Honolulu. A member of the House Progressive Caucus, Hirono is running to replace retiring Senator Daniel Akaka – and will face conservative Democrat Ed Case for the party nomination. With Republicans running a woman for this seat (ex-Governor Linda Lingle), it would behoove Democrats to nominate Hirono.

A November general election between Hirono and Lingle would be a rematch of the 2002 Governor’s race ten years ago – when Lingle narrowly defeated Hirono by a 51-47 margin.

Nevada: Shelly Berkley

In 2011, Republican Senator Jon Ensign resigned due to an ethics violation – and now appointed GOP incumbent Dean Heller is running for a full term. Democrats are getting behind Las Vegas Congresswoman Shelly Berkley to challenge him. In a swing state, this will be a race between two well known politicians who each hail from the liberal and conservative parts of Nevada – but with the Republican War on Women, Shelly Berkley may get the boost she needs to win.

North Dakota: Heidi Heitkamp

Democrats were going to have a tough time holding onto this Senate seat in a very red state, where long-time incumbent Kent Conrad is retiring. But with Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp as the Democratic nominee, they will have a strong candidate to keep the race competitive.

Incumbent Woman Senators Running for Re-Election

In addition to these six women running for U.S. Senate, Democrats will defend six women who are up for re-election – Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Five of these Senators represent blue states, and were favored to win anyway – but McCaskill, in her first term, has a tough fight. In January, Randy Shaw predicted that McCaskill would lose in November – given that Missouri voted for John McCain in 2008.

But with even 99% of Catholics admitting to have used contraceptives, the Republican War on Women could generate a huge gender-gap in November. Claire McCaskill will have a hard time defending her seat, but she may benefit from conservative women voting in the privacy of a polling place – while their husbands vote Republican.

Even if all these candidates win in November, women would still be only 22% of the U.S. Senate – proving that we still have a long way to go, especially when compared with other Western democracies. But if 2012 is another “year of the woman,” we can at least make some progress.

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