Democrats Pin Their Senate Hopes on Women

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).

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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