Can Women Save Democrats in 2014?

The beleaguered party is hoping female candidates and women's issues will be a winning combination—again.
Darrell Byers/Reuters

Wendy Davis. Alison Lundergan Grimes. Mary Burke. Allyson Schwartz. Michelle Nunn. Natalie Tennant.

The Democratic Party is hoping 2014 will be a Year of the Woman—again.

As party operatives prepare for the midterm elections, Democratic women are being cast in starring roles, on the ballot and at the ballot box, as the party tries to take back politically important governor's mansions and keep its fragile majority in the Senate.

"The importance of women to the Democratic Party in 2014 cannot be overstated," said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List, which recruits and supports Democratic women candidates. "They are running in our biggest, most important races in the country."

President Obama rode to reelection in 2012 with strong support from female voters, and Democrats gained seats in the Senate and House thanks in part to prominent Republican stumbles over rape and abortion.

Now, Democrats are pushing to carry over that 2012 "gender gap" to 2014, hoping the support of female voters will shore up the party amid a traditionally tough political atmosphere of a presidential midterm and the rocky debut of Obama's healthcare law. They believe the slate of prominent women on the 2014 ballot will make the contrast with Republicans all the clearer.

There is Davis in Texas, who captured the hearts of liberals nationwide with her standing filibuster to block an anti-abortion law and is now running for governor. Burke and Schwartz are two of the Democrats running to oust incumbent conservative GOP governors, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively.

In the Senate, two of the four most endangered Democratic incumbents, Senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, are women. Tennant is trying to keep Democrats' hold on a tough West Virginia seat. And Nunn and Grimes are the party's lone shots are picking up Republican-held seats, with Grimes trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of 2014's marquee match-ups.

Most of these female candidates are running in tough places, red states Mitt Romney won, or against entrenched incumbents. They aren't favored to win—and many may end up on the 2014 political scrap heap—but party operatives believe they give Democrats the best shot in such hostile political territory.

"The 2012 election showed that we have problems with female issues," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. "There is a widespread recognition by Republican strategists that this needs to change—as soon as possible."

The recent victory of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race showed that issues of abortion and contraception remain salient. McAuliffe bombarded the airwaves on those topics en route to running up his margin of victory among unmarried women voters to 42 percentage points, according to exit polling.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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