Democratic Senate Seats at Risk: Will Women Save the Majority?

With their majority in jeopardy, the Democrats are relying on female incumbents to save their hide. From Kirsten Gillibrand to Claire McCaskill, Eleanor Clift on the women with safe seats—and those who might lose.

Photos from left: Stephen J Boitano / AP Photos; Carlos Osorio / AP Photos; Lynn Goldsmith / Corbis

With their Senate majority threatened, Democrats are looking to women as their firewall.

Among the 23 Democratic seats up for grabs in 2012, six are held by women, all strong contenders and representing battleground states that will decide not only their races but the presidency. They are the Democrats’ largest class of Senate women, and they symbolize the party’s reliance on support from women—not to mention the importance of Senate control on issues of particular interest to women.

Five of the six are “safe as they can be,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. They are Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Dianne Feinstein of California. Only Claire McCaskill’s race in Missouri is rated a tossup, and Sabato says he envisions an ad featuring three or four Senate women saying: McCaskill is sensitive to our issues, she really cares about women. “You don’t even have to say ‘women,’” he adds. “People aren’t stupid, they absorb the message.”

The power of women standing together was highlighted last month when nine of the 12 Democratic women now serving in the Senate went to the floor to vow they would shut down the government rather than yield to Republican demands to defund Planned Parenthood. Of the 17 women in the Senate, 12 are Democrats, and with half of them facing the voters next year, Democrats believe there is value in promoting this half-dozen together to send the message about their importance to the party.

North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan chairs the Women’s Senate Network, established in 2001 on the Democratic side, and its focus now is protecting the Senate Six. “Over the last few decades, women in Congress have made tremendous strides,” says Hagan. “It is so important that we re-elect these six women, who are both excellent representatives for their states and fantastic leaders on issues that matter to women across the country.” Republicans need four seats to gain the majority, and with just 10 Republican seats up for re-election, and only a handful truly competitive, the battleground is stacked against the Democrats.

“Re-electing these women is critical to keeping the anti-woman and anti-family agenda at bay, and right now that Medicare stuff is great,” says Jennifer Bluestein Lamb.

If the women hold their own, that will bode well for the Democrats. In the last election, where Democrats lost the House and six Senate seats, the overall number of women in Congress went down for the first time since women began running for and holding public office.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse doubts that showcasing the Senate women as a group will do much for the Democratic message, and he thinks it has the potential to backfire. “Putting them together makes it about gender, and people don’t want to believe they’re voting for someone just because of their gender,” he says. Republicans have their own way of reaching out to women. In the last two elections, the GOP targeted Wal-Mart Moms, a key audience hit hard by the economy and which tends to be lower income. Suburban women also have been an important part of the GOP coalition. “If a Republican can win among white women, it puts them in a strong position to win the election,” says Newhouse.

Democrats see opportunity in the issues that Republicans have chosen to elevate since winning control of the House. From trying to eliminate funding for Title X, a family planning program established by Richard Nixon, to a Medicare plan that would privatize the program with vouchers—dubbed “right wing social engineering” by Newt Gingrich—there is a rich tableau for Democrats to draw from. “Re-electing these women is critical to keeping the anti-woman and anti-family agenda at bay, and right now that Medicare stuff is great,” says Jennifer Bluestein Lamb, communications director for Emily’s List, a pro-choice organization that helps elect women to public office.

The concerted effort by Democrats to portray the Republican Party as waging a war on women has the potential to resonate with female voters and sharpen the divide between the two parties. The 2012 electorate should be more inclined to elect women, or at least Democratic women, than last year’s voters, who were fewer, whiter, and older. Presenting the women as a group is “a plus in terms of contributions,” says Sabato. “And they can channel those to McCaskill. The others don’t need them.” That could test the sisterhood, since even the safest candidates worry about being upset on election night and stockpile money as an insurance policy.

As a group, women are often seen as above the partisan bickering that voters hate and that consumes so much of Washington life, but each of these races will turn on its own dynamic. McCaskill is weighed down by ethics charges having to do with the use of her husband’s company plane, and she’s in a tough state for Democrats. John McCain carried Missouri in 2008. Stabenow is one of a string of Midwestern Democrats who need the economy to significantly improve before they can be confident of re-election. Klobuchar gets high marks in her state, hasn’t drawn an opponent yet, and has been musing about the possibility that Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann might run against her should the presidential trail run cold. Cantwell won by double digits her last time out. but Tea Party-endorsed challenger Dino Rossi, who has run against both Cantwell and sister Senator Patty Murray, could appear on the ballot again.

The Senate Six may be the party’s firewall, but it’s not impossible that some of them could get burned.

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Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter.