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Women Winning Senate Races Will Set Record in January

November 07, 2012

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin celebrates her victory over Republican Tommy Thompson as she enters the stage on election night in Madison, Wisconsin. Photographer: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Women will occupy a record number of U.S. Senate seats -- one in five -- in January, following victories in yesterday’s balloting.

Five women won first terms in the Senate -- in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Nebraska and North Dakota. The results mean that when the new Congress convenes in January, 20 of its 100 members will be women.

Currently, 17 women -- which had been the record -- serve in the chamber. Two of them, Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, are retiring.

All but one of the women newly elected in yesterday’s election are Democrats. They probably benefited from the momentum of President Barack Obama’s campaign and from Senate Democrats’ painting Republicans as waging a “war against women” that would limit reproductive rights, said Barbara Lee, founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which seeks to boost women’s representation in elective office.

The increased numbers of women in both parties in Congress and governorships also breeds more success, she said.

“The more women hold office, the more the barriers dissipate,” Lee said in an interview.

All of the women senators-elect won seats held by men. In Nebraska, Republican Deb Fischer defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former two-term senator from the state, for an open seat. In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor whose attacks on Wall Street fueled her campaign, won her race against the Republican incumbent, Senator Scott Brown.

First Gay

U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, claimed an open Senate seat in Wisconsin over Republican Tommy Thompson, who previously served 14 years as the state’s governor and was former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Like Warren, Baldwin is the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. Senate. Baldwin will also be the chamber’s first openly gay member.

In Hawaii, U.S. Representative Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, defeated former Republican Governor Linda Lingle for an open seat.

In a North Dakota race that was settled today, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, defeated Republican U.S. Representative Rick Berg for an open seat.

Steady Gains

Women have been making steady gains in Senate membership since the election of 1992, dubbed the Year of the Woman, brought their numbers on the chamber to seven. Even so, in state legislatures that provide a pipeline to higher office, gains have been slower. Female representation in state legislative seats across the nation stands at 24 percent, just three percentage points higher than two decades ago, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

For statewide elective office, one of the clearest paths to governorships, it has risen 1 percentage point in that time, to 23 percent, down from a high of 28 percent in 2001.

Female candidates who lost in Senate races yesterday included U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, who in Nevada was defeated by the Republican incumbent, Dean Heller, and former U.S. Representative Heather Wilson, defeated in New Mexico by Democratic House member Martin Heinrich for an open seat.

Women Incumbents

At Emily’s List, a political action committee geared toward electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, officials also heralded results that returned to the Senate incumbent females. They include Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, al Democrats.

“Women in America want leaders with the right priorities, who will stand up for women and families -- not roll the clock back on our rights and freedoms,” Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, said in an e-mailed statement.

While four states today are represented by two female senators -- New Hampshire, Maine, California and Washington -- that will decrease by one in the next congressional session. Snowe, who has represented Maine in the chamber for three terms, will be replaced by independent Angus King, a former Maine governor.

In New Hampshire, female incumbent senators Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, will be part of another first. New Hampshire in January becomes the only state to have women in the governor’s mansion, in both Senate seats, and in all House seats.

That comes after Democrat Maggie Hassan won her race for governor against Republican Ovide Lamontagne, and Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster wrested New Hampshire’s two House seats from incumbent Republicans Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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