Democrats Pin Their Senate Hopes on Women

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As the party seeks to retain control of the upper chamber, its 2012 lineup of candidates will feature more women than ever

Elizabeth Warren - AP Photo:Josh Reynolds - banner.jpg

If you want a sign of the gender gap in American politics, look no further than both parties' Senate recruitment efforts.

Democrats have accomplished the rare feat of convincing more women than men to run in leading Senate races next year. Include the six women up for reelection, and it's the largest crop running for the Senate--ever.

Of the eight open or Republican-held seats Democrats are aggressively contesting, there's a good chance that a woman will end up as the standard-bearer in at least half. Democrats' path to holding the Senate winds through Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Rep. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada, and, potentially, Rep. Mazie Hirono in Hawaii. Party officials also are hoping former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp can pull off an upset in Republican-friendly North Dakota.

Republicans have landed prominent women candidates too, with former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson best positioned for victory next year. But their A-list roster isn't nearly as deep as the Democrats'.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington, who on her second tour is the only woman to ever head the committee, played a key role in recruiting and field clearing. It's no coincidence that Berkley, Warren, and Baldwin have no serious primary competition. Party officials believe that in an anti-Washington, anti-politician environment, women candidates fit the outsider role much more effectively than men.

Murray's close relationship with EMILY's List, whose mission is to elect female Democrats who support abortion rights, has benefited her. The group has spent the last two decades developing a deep farm system of qualified candidates for Congress, governorships, and state legislatures who can step up when opportunities arise. When a wave of senatorial retirements hit earlier this year, many of the group's favored candidates pounced.

"Women voters respond to women candidates. It strengthens our ticket in these states to have women running for the Senate," said former DSCC political director Martha McKenna, who has also worked at EMILY's List.

But if Democrats are expecting 2012 to be a replay of 1992's "year of the woman," they may have a tougher road to hoe than anticipated. Two incumbents, Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, have challenging reelection bids. All of the Democratic women candidates for Senate are a degree more liberal than the states they're seeking to represent, which is a glaring red flag in an otherwise stream of good recruiting news for the party.

Warren, running against GOP Sen. Scott Brown, is the poster child for testing the limits of outspoken liberalism. The architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren is a progressive celebrity thanks to her sharp criticism of Wall Street and well-crafted image of fighting for the underdog. In her first campaign advertisement, Warren played up her working-class upbringing in Oklahoma.

But even as she energizes the liberal base and has become an impressive fundraiser, Warren provides Republicans with a heap of opposition research fodder. Her recent praise of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and embrace of active federal regulation are politically risky positions. Public polls show Americans wary of Wall Street and big business but equally resistant to the federal government's expanded role under the Obama administration. Even in deeply Democratic Massachusetts, significantly more voters consider themselves moderate (46 percent) than liberal (32 percent).

Warren has natural political talent and will benefit from presidential-level turnout in a Democratic state. However, Republicans are painting her as outside the mainstream and as a leftist Harvard academic and believe her views could turn off enough moderates to hand Brown a victory.

Baldwin faces similar challenges in Wisconsin for the seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). She brings all the skills party officials want--strong fundraising, tireless campaigning, and rallying of the base. But she also represents the Midwest's liberal mecca, Madison, and has a voting record to match. She backed labor protests against Gov. Scott Walker. She's a strong anti-war voice. And she is the first and only openly lesbian member of Congress who is at the forefront of fighting for gay rights.

If Republicans sought her conservative equivalent to run--say, someone in the mold of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)--they'd probably be laughed out of the room. But Democrats believe Baldwin can strike a populist tone and connect with labor, and is likable enough that voters will overlook their issue-specific disagreements with her. They cite the success of another liberal maverick, former three-term Sen. Russell Feingold, in Wisconsin as a telltale example.

Still, Democrats made their biggest 2010 gains in the state Senate and in judicial recalls in more-rural parts of the state. Those areas are more culturally conservative, making it debatable whether Baldwin's style will resonate.

In Hawaii, Hirono has national party support in her faceoff with former Democratic Rep. Ed Case, in a race that pits the state party's liberal wing with a more moderate faction. Hirono, the early favorite, consistently ranks in the top tier of the most liberal members in her short tenure in Congress, according to National Journal's vote ratings. That's hardly a disqualifier in the deeply Democratic Aloha State, but the winner goes up against the leading GOP female recruit--the popular former governor Lingle. Case has internal polling showing that nominating Hirono could hand the election to a Republican.

Berkley, running against appointed GOP Sen. Dean Heller, is not quite as liberal as her two counterparts but is a party-line voter in Congress on major legislation. As a favored candidate of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who helped clear her path to the nomination, Berkley doesn't have much room to showcase her independence.

Heitkamp is the one recruit who will campaign as a moderate and distance herself from President Obama. Republicans will focus on her support for Obama's health care law--an issue that played a key role in the retirement of the state's two Democratic senators over the last two election cycles and the defeat of the state's Democratic congressman last year.

Democrats believe this crop of candidates, despite many of their outspoken liberal views, is uniquely positioned to drive the income-inequality message that party strategists believe will be pivotal. However, that bets that biography trumps ideology in 2012.

Image credit: Josh Reynolds/AP

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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