Once dubbed the Year of the Woman, 2010 saw a record number of Republican women seeking elective office. But the number of them in Congress from both parties declined for the first time in 30 years, because so many Democrats—many of them women—were swept out of office. Only one member of the freshman class of Democratic women survived the Republican wave: Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, former head of Common Cause. Her seven female colleagues were defeated after a single term.
Three of the seven are running again in what look like major grudge matches, as Democrats seek to exploit voter backlash against the Tea Party and take advantage of newly drawn open seats. The three returnees are Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio, Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona, and Dina Titus in Nevada. They’re running on familiar themes: creating jobs, Wall Street accountability, and protecting Medicare and Social Security—messages that voters battered by the economy seem ready to hear.
Shifting voter sentiment has made it easier for Democrats to recruit top candidates, and in the top 60 targeted races, 31 of the candidates are women, including Iowa’s Christie Vilsack, wife of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Though it’s her first bid for elective office, “She is not naïve when it comes to politics,” says Kiki McLean, a longtime Democratic strategist. “It’s going to be hard to knock someone like her out.”
Vilsack spent the summer on a “listening tour,” visiting all of Iowa’s 39 counties, much as Hillary Clinton did in preparing for her first Senate race in New York. Iowa has never sent a woman to Congress, or elected a woman governor. Last spring, when Vilsack was first pondering a run, Secretary Vilsack was quoted saying that a contest between his wife and Rep. Steve King, one of the GOP’s most aggressive conservatives, would be “a holy war.” Insiders have long touted Christie Vilsack as a more spirited and combative politician than her wonkish husband.
Another familiar name returning to the campaign trail is Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who narrowly lost her race for an Illinois congressional seat in 2006. Duckworth lost both her legs while serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, and her return to civilian life provides inspiration for many wounded vets. President Obama named her Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a post that she held until last summer, when she declared her intention to run in Illinois’ re-drawn 8th congressional district, which is now more favorable to Democrats.
Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), is bullish about his party’s chances to regain control of the House, and the critical role that women are playing. He notes that in the three special elections held since 2010, the two that the Democrats won were won by women: Kathy Hochul in Buffalo, N.Y., and Janice Hahn in California. “We only need 25 [seats], and I can tell you in 30 seconds how we’re going to do it,” he says.
There are 19 districts with a Republican in office that voted for Obama in ’08 and John Kerry in ’04. They are solid Democratic, says Israel, who then adds, “I don’t believe in optimism. Optimism never won an election. Worst-case scenario, we win 10, Republicans nine. That’s 10 in the bank.”
There are 43 districts that Obama won that are now represented by a Republican. “Worst case scenario, we win 15 of the 43—that’s a 2-to-1 advantage for the Republicans.” That adds up to the 25 seats that would return the Democrats to the majority. “We can’t afford to lose any incumbents,” Israel says. “I don’t guarantee to anyone we’ll win the House. I do guarantee it will be razor-close and the House will be in play.”
The economy is the single most important issue for candidates to master, and it isn’t a disadvantage to women as it was in the past, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
“Voters are looking for more kitchen-table economics that affect their families, and that’s given women a new opening in the economy.” Lake notes that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in the last GOP debate talked directly to “moms across this country … losing their nest for their children and families.” She pledged to protect them from foreclosure.
This is a key swing vote, says Lake, and these women could be dubbed “mortgage moms.” Obama won self-identified independent women by 8 points in 2008; Republicans won them by 14 points in 2010—a swing of 22 points. Right now, 50 percent of them are undecided when given a choice between a generic Republican and Democrat. “It looks up for grabs,” says Lake.
Obama must be reading the same polls, because Monday he announced a new and improved effort to help people finance homes that are underwater, meaning they owe more on their mortgage than the value of the house. Obama is taking action by executive order, instead of relying on Congress to act.
Women voters and candidates hold the keys to victory in the upcoming elections. In the Senate, Democrats are counting on consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren to generate a populist groundswell. “She’s never been a candidate before, but she sure knows how to fight for people,” says Barbara Lee, whose family foundation funds research on overcoming the obstacles women still face in running for public office.
Female candidates used to rely on support from women, but younger voters age 18 to 34 say that while they applaud women running for office, gender doesn’t predict their vote. “They say, ‘I’ve seen a lot of them [women candidates], and at this point it’s a nonissue for me,’” says Lake.
Because of the high visibility of women like Bachmann, Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin, voters think women are much more successful and prominent than they are. “They’re shocked when they learn there are only six women governors, women are 16 percent of Congress, and the number has actually dropped. The post-feminist generation thinks women have arrived.”