From Rep. Bart Stupak’s successful grandstanding against abortion rights to Martha Coakley’s stunning upset at the hands of the heretofore unknown Scott Brown, it’s been a tough few months for women in Democratic politics. All the bad news—and the sense that the Beltway women’s organizations were caught off-guard, feeling complacent after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory—has left institutional feminism’s top players wondering what it will take for female candidates and women’s issues to win in 2010, and how they can help.
“Women who run as women, proudly announcing that their life experience matters, it informs their judgment and their policy beliefs, and they’re proud to be women? Those women win.”
“Look, in terms of what happened [in Massachusetts], I think we all need to look at ourselves and point the finger at ourselves a little bit,” said Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY’s List, which donated more than $460,000 to Coakley’s Senate campaign. “At EMILY’s List, we need to do more analysis of independent voters and work with our candidates in terms of being attuned to them.”
• Peter Beinart: Democrats, Don’t Despair Although strategists agree that independents’ frustration with Washington contributed to Coakley’s upset, there is no consensus on how to salve the anxiety. Liberal groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are publicizing polls demonstrating that even Scott Brown’s voters were in favor of a public health-insurance option. The lesson, they say, is that the White House and congressional Democrats have been too quick to compromise with insurance companies and centrists. Meanwhile, those at-risk centrists, such as Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, are arguing that the lesson of Coakley’s defeat is that Democrats should move further to the middle.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, whose political action committee endorsed Coakley, sides with the liberals. “Hammering out legislation in Washington behind closed doors in a nontransparent way? People don’t want that,” she said, going so far as to compare the health-care reform process under Obama to President George W. Bush’s way of doing business: “Voters already said no to that in 2008.” She added, “Coakley’s numbers started going down precipitously after the Senate version of health care came out, which was just a huge giveaway to the insurance companies.”
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• Dana Goldstein: Martha Coakley’s Stunning Gender GapBut O’Neill acknowledges that Coakley, who has been roundly criticized for running a lethargic, entitled campaign, was less than a perfect candidate. Coakley’s advertisements were stiff and played it safe, never highlighting that she could have been her state’s first female senator or promising to be a proud voice in Congress for reproductive rights, which are under attack.
“The tendency is to say, ‘Well, I’m a human being, I have ideas, and capacity, and I know I can do this job and be a good public servant!’’ O’Neill told The Daily Beast. “So it is tempting for women to say, ‘I’m not running as a woman.’ But women who run as women, proudly announcing that their life experience matters, it informs their judgment and their policy beliefs, and they’re proud to be women? Those women win. Hillary Clinton did that, and I know she didn’t win the nomination, but it absolutely worked for her. She came back in New Hampshire. She came very, very close.”
They key now, though, will be to find a feminist politics that looks forward, not back at the 2008 Democratic primary. Independents’ unpredictability, as well as the Tea Party movement’s newfound online organizational capacity, have emboldened Republicans, so at EMILY’s List, “for us this cycle, we’re really watching our incumbents carefully,” Parker said. Two of the most at-risk Democratic women are Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy of Columbus, Ohio, who in 2008 became the first Democrat elected from her district in more than four decades, and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas of Florida, who owes her 2008 victory in large part to the involvement of her opponent, Tom Feeney, in the Jack Abramoff ethics scandal.
But there are also fresh female faces to watch in 2010. In an attempt to get tough, pro-choice groups are supporting candidates mounting uphill battles against pro-life Democrats and Republicans: twice-failed Congressional candidate Lois Herr in Pennsylvania is challenging Republican Joe Pitts of the Stupak-Pitts antiabortion amendment to health reform, and Rhode Island state legislator Elizabeth Dennigan is primarying Jim Langevin, a Democrat who has long opposed abortion rights.
Colleen Hanabusa is Hawaii’s first female state Senate president and the first Asian-American woman to preside over a state legislative chamber anywhere in the country. She’s running for Congress in a special election this spring to replace fellow Democrat Neil Abercrombie, who’s leaving to run for governor, giving Republicans another pickup opportunity. Then there’s Birmingham attorney and anti-domestic-violence activist Terri Sewell, who would be the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama.
Krystal Ball, a 27-year-old mother of two running for the House from Virginia’s 6th District, faces an uphill battle against incumbent Republican Bob Goodlatte, who has allied himself with the “birther” movement, which questions President Barack Obama’s citizenship status. Yet Ball excites people because she has the guts to run in a tough district, and to do so at a tender age. (She is also quite beautiful, and adept at speaking about how being a mom inspired her to get involved in politics.)
Robin Carnahan, daughter of Missouri politicians Mel and Jean Carnahan, represents one of the Democrats’ best hopes to pick up a Senate seat; Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s secretary of state and a female politician around whom national buzz had been building for years, represents another. Brunner is credited with reforming Ohio’s election system, and she has attracted support on the left for her positions in favor of gay marriage and against the war in Afghanistan.
Are any of these women superstars in the making—or are they sleeper Martha Coakleys? As many have said, in 2003 almost no one in America knew who Barack Obama was; just three weeks ago, almost no one had heard of Scott Brown, yet he is now being hailed as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Could the female Barack Obama—or the much hoped for “next Hillary” be out there somewhere, under the radar? Advocates say the only way to find out is to convince as many women as possible to run for office, pointing to research showing that women are still far less likely than men to aspire to public office, especially at a young age—and less likely to run a second time if they lose the first time around.
“My bottom-line takeaway is that women should run for office,” O’Neill said. “They’re not allowed to put you in jail for losing an election.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.