A year ago few political experts would have guessed that a woman or a Democrat stood a solid chance of becoming South Carolina's next senator. The fact that Inez Tenenbaum, who is running competitively for the state's open Senate seat, is both makes her a very unusual politician. It's not just her party and her sex that set her apart: at just over five feet tall, Tenenbaum seems to disappear when she wades into a crowd. She gives this, like many other potential negatives, a positive spin: at a recent barbecue fundraiser in Seneca she touted herself as "the little woman with big ideas." This struck a chord with the small-town crowd, whose enthusiasm grew as Tenenbaum recited her qualifications—not just as the state's twice-elected superintendent of education but also as a former homecoming queen. By the time she had exhorted her audience to recruit GRITs—"Good Republicans for Inez Tenenbaum"—most appeared eager to help. "She'd be such a gracious presence in the Senate," Libby Woodell, a retired social worker, said. "There doesn't seem to be a mean bone in her body, but she's tough."
That combination of toughness and charm has helped Tenenbaum join a growing cadre of Democratic women who are winning statewide elections in perhaps the unlikeliest part of the country—conservative Dixie. The South has grown so Republican over the past decade that some Democratic strategists speak openly of abandoning it. Yet in recent years the Democrats Blanche Lincoln, of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, have managed to win Senate races, and Kathleen Blanco the Louisiana governor's race, in a style very much their own. "In their graciousness they are clearly daughters of the South," the political analyst Jennifer Duffy explains. "But they are also smart, political, and not to be taken lightly." All these women hail from the political center-right, favoring a robust military, gun owners' rights, and tax cuts—a far cry from the pantsuited liberals of the Hillary Clinton mold who leap to mind at the phrase "female Democratic senator." And they skillfully exploit traditional gender stereotypes. "I'm delighted when a man stands up when I enter a room," Lincoln declares. "But once I'm in the room, I also expect there will be a place for me at the table." Duffy has christened this formidable new breed of politician "Steel Magnolias."