Up and Coming

10 Women to Watch in Politics During the 2012 Campaign

From the left and the right, Patricia Murphy picks the noteworthy women to watch in the coming election.

You already know the women to watch in politics—Nancy, Hillary, Sarah, and the others who make news by tweeting a thought, making an endorsement, or solving a humanitarian crisis.

Now meet the next women to watch: the ones pegged by political insiders to become the breakout stars of 2012. Some are members of Congress on the fast track, others are on the ballot looking to make their marks. All are making a name for themselves.

1. Mia Love: If the name is new to you, it won’t be for long. Love is fast becoming the breakout star of the GOP’s 2012 recruiting class as she makes a run for Utah’s newly created Fourth District.

It’s fitting that a newly drawn district would attract this particular candidate, who is a one-of-a-kind herself. The African-American Mormon is the mayor of Saratoga Springs, the Utah boomtown that claims an AAA bond rating, and is also a mom of three and a take-no-prisoners fitness instructor in her spare time. Those who know this daughter of Haitian immigrants say she’s even more than the sum of her parts, calling her “tenacious,” “dynamic,” and “a superstar.”

The pro-life gun owner recently surprised the Utah old guard when she sailed through the Republican convention on the first ballot, an accomplishment that even longtime senator Orrin Hatch couldn’t manage, and has been tapped as one of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns.” According to the NRCC’s Andrea Bozek, “It’s a signal to our community that this is a candidate you should be watching.”

2. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.): Democrats wrote off this North Dakota Senate seat almost as soon as Kent Conrad announced he would retire from representing the redder-than-red state. But when popular former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp leaped into the race against House GOP freshman Rep. Rick Berg, she also jumpstarted her party’s hopes of holding onto not only the seat but control of the Senate itself.

The fact that the Cook Political Report rates the race a “toss-up” after Barack Obama lost the state by nearly nine points in 2008 is evidence of this conservative Democrat’s willingness to buck her president and her party when necessary, including swatting Obama over the Keystone-XL pipeline. “She’s an extremely dynamic, affable, popular leader,” says a D.C. Democrat. “At a time when they say moderates are no longer welcome, this is a moderate who is surging against all odds, and she’s doing it by sheer force of personality.”

3. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): Gillibrand was appointed in 2009 to fill Hillary Clinton’s seriously big shoes in the Senate when Barack Obama tapped his former rival as secretary of State. Gillibrand quickly learned the ropes, held onto her seat in two elections, and is running 34 points ahead of the competition in her latest Senate race.

Democrats in Washington point to the senator’s fundraising prowess, her national network of contacts, and impossible-not-to-notice evolution from ambitious House backbencher to skilled Senate legislator as the reasons they see much more ahead for this mother of two young sons who is frequently referred in the halls of Congress as “the next Hillary.”

People who know Gillibrand say she’s more than the “next anybody.” But if not Hillary in 2016, the chatter goes, why not another talented female senator from New York? “This is a party that wants to nominate a woman,” says a top Democrat. “And after Hillary, she is at the top of the list.”

4. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.): McMorris Rodgers has broken plenty of barriers during her in eight years in the House, but none more challenging than becoming the only woman in the House Republican leadership while also being the only member of Congress to give birth in office—twice.

The conservative multi-tasker from Washington State has also become the face of the GOP’s efforts to shoot down the “war on women” narrative that has taken root in this election cycle. It’s not always an easy job for the woman known as a steady hand in a Capitol full of blowhards, but the Mitt Romney campaign recently took notice of her efforts and named her as Romney’s top surrogate in the House.

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“I think she is a powerhouse,” says Katie Vliesttra, executive director of the Women Under 40 PAC that endorsed the congresswoman in her first race. “A lot of people counted her out in an unfair way when her son was born, and she just put her head down and proved them wrong.”

McMorris Rogers’s son was born with Down syndrome. When she returned from maternity leave, the congresswoman promptly launched the Down Syndrome Caucus to educate her fellow members of Congress about the condition.

5. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.): “Authenticity” and “sincerity” aren’t two words usually used to describe politicians, but fans of the 43-year-old former New Hampshire attorney general say Ayotte is both of those things, as well as a reliable go-to voice for conservative causes, from pro-life issues to keeping the prison at Guantánamo Bay open for business. After less than two years in the Senate, the mother of two young children has also found herself as a much-buzzed-about member of Mitt Romney’s rumored VP shortlist.

Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast that he can sum Ayotte up in one word: “superstar.” After working with her on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain predicts the “incredibly quick study” will end up in the Republican leadership “very soon,” adding, “I would imagine that over time she may go even further than the Senate.”

6. Elizabeth Warren: Warren has been on Washington’s radar since 2008, when the Harvard law professor took on the Herculean (and thankless) task of overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in the wake of the financial meltdown.

But it’s her current job headlining the country’s marquee Senate race that makes her worth watching all the way through to November. Fighting to win back Ted Kennedy’s seat has made her the darling of Democrats and Enemy No. 1 for Republicans, who are eager to keep the affable Scott Brown in office. Warren and Brown are neck and neck in polls, despite a recent mini-scandal over whether Warren identified herself as Native American to move up the academic ranks.

The grandmother of three favors cardigan sweaters and granny glasses over power suits from St. John. But don’t let the friendly librarian garb fool you—Warren raised a whopping $7 million last quarter alone and rolled through the Massachusetts Democratic convention with an unprecedented 96 percent of the vote.

7. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii): “High achiever” seems like faint praise for the dynamic Gabbard, who kicked off her public-service career as the youngest woman ever elected to a state legislature, at 21, and never looked back. Just two years into her term, Gabbard resigned to deploy to Iraq as a member of the Hawaii National Guard. Following a second tour in Kuwait and a stint as a Senate staffer for Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Akaka in Washington, Gabbard went home to run for—and win—a seat on the Honolulu City Council, where she now serves.

“Forceful,” “brave,” and “down to earth” are a few of the adjectives people use to describe Gabbard, who will need all of those attributes and more in her congressional race against the mayor of Honolulu for Hawaii’s open House seat. At the ripe age of 31, supporters say, the Samoan-born, home-schooled Gabbard is ready for the challenge.

8. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.): It hardly seems like an election these days without an underestimated lady rancher defying the odds. So thank your lucky stars for Deb Fischer, operator, with her husband, of Valentine’s Sunny Slope cattle ranch and the seemingly out-of-nowhere winner of the Nebraska Republican Senate primary. She knocked out two better-funded men to take on former senator Bob Kerrey for the open seat this November.

But people who know Fischer say the veteran legislator has been hiding in plain sight. The “tenacious” state rep has served Nebraska’s largest district since 2005 and has become well known in conservative circles as someone who finishes what she starts.

“What I loved about her race is the whole world was focused on the guys and she threaded the needle and defied everyone’s expectations,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, executive director of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, which has endorsed Fischer. “That’s the kind of candidate we love.”

9. Sarah Steelman (R-Mo.): Steelman, a former state senator and Missouri state treasurer, is leading in the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose tepid approval ratings have Republicans sharpening their knives for a chance to knock out the incumbent. Political watchers say a Steelman-McCaskill matchup would be a barn-burner between two tough women at nearly opposite sides of the political spectrum, and Republicans would love to have a woman to put up against the senator.

The pro-life, tax-cutting, Tea Party favorite has gotten in hot water lately for failing to denounce hot rhetoric from another Republican aimed at McCaskill, but Steelman’s name alone speaks to her likelihood of apologizing before the state’s August primary determines the nominee. Says one Republican who knows Steelman, “That’s just it, she’s made of steel.”

10. Val Demings (D-Fla.): Demings started out as a beat cop in Orlando and worked her way up to become the city’s first-ever female chief of police. The mother of three boys saw the city’s violent crime rate fall by 40 percent under her leadership before she retired and set her sights on Congress. The youngest of seven children of a janitor and housekeeper, the “steady,” “determined” Demings is a clear favorite of Democrats, who put her at the top of the list of the hopefuls they’d like to see make it all the way to Washington.

“Val Demings is like an actual superhero,” says Jen Bluestein Lamb of EMILY’S List, which has endorsed Demings. “She transcends so much of the blustery rhetoric that people don’t like about Washington. Val is the exact kind of woman we’d like to see get involved in politics throughout the country.” Demings will take on Republican Rep. Dan Webster in November.