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Category: Politics, LGBT, Race/Ethnicity, Reproductive Rights

2012 Elections: Women Make Their Mark

| November 7, 2012

Elizabeth Warren's on-line message to supporters.

Women claim the last word in the "war on women" election this year, with 55 percent backing Barack Obama and many progressive women winning House and Senate seats.

Women won record numbers of seats in Congress in the 2012 elections and voters sent a strong message that kidding around about rape will not be tolerated.

The election was vindication for dozens of women’s groups who formed a bipartisan effort more than a year ago to recruit and groom more women to run for office this year. This was a rare year of opportunity to elect more women: the first election after U.S. House districts seats were redrawn to reflect new Census data – creating dozens of seats with no incumbents – and a presidential election year, guaranteeing much interest and energy in the elections.

A record number of 18 women ran for the U.S. Senate, according to the Center for the American Women in Politics (CAWP), an increase of four from the previous record in 2010. The record of women running for the U.S. House also was broken, with 166 women running compared to the past high mark of 141 in 2004. This time, unlike in past years, a significant number of women won. With a few races still being counted, at least 76 women won House seats (56 Democrats a 20 Republicans), and there will be 20 women in the Senate (17 Democrats and 3 Republicans).

It was especially good for Democratic women. All six Democratic women senators won reelection, something that looked to be a tough challenge only months ago, and four new Democratic women were elected to the Senate.

Democrat Elizabeth Warren easily defeated GOP Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Brown had been an upset  winner two years earlier to fill the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. He campaigned then from a battered pickup, but the folksy touch didn’t work when he taunted Warren, who gained great popularity as a consumer advocate during the financial crisis, as being an out-of-touch Harvard professor.

Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin upended the former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, partly by tying him to plans to privatize Social Security. Baldwin becomes the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. And in the Hawaii Senate race, Democrat Representative Mazie Hirono defeated Republican Linda Lingle, a former governor.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp eked out a victory finally decided midday Wednesday against GOP Representative Rick Berg in North Dakota, where Romney had won handily.

No Republican women senators faced the voters this year. In Nebraska, Republican Deb Fischer defeated Bob Kerrey in his bid to return to office there. A state legislator, she had been a surprise primary victor with Tea Party backing. In Nevada, Democrat Shelley Berkley lost her race for the Senate seat.

Abortion choice, as well as access to contraception, played a major role in 2012 voting. Whether pro- or anti-choice, a third of voters cited abortion as their chief concern in pre-elections polls. Two Senate races pitted pro-choice male Democrats against anti-choice Republican women, with Representative Martin Heinrich defeating former Representative Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Representative Chris Murphy clobbering GOP wrestling impresario Linda McMahon in Connecticut.

Women’s votes in northern Virginia were important in electing Democrat Tim Kaine to the Senate, buffering him against an unprecedented $53 million in attack ads funded by undisclosed Super PACS. In his victory speech, he noted that millions of votes, not millions of dollars, had prevailed. Kaine had campaigned to preserve Roe v. Wade, and one of the most widely used ads supporting Kaine noted the Virginia Republicans’ passage of an invasive vaginal ultrasound test as a precondition for getting an abortion.

In addition, in Maine a pro-choice independent, Angus King, defeated a conservative Republican to succeed retiring moderate GOP Senator Olympia Snowe.

Whether there was a right-wing “war on women” in 2012 can be dissected for years to come, but women were 53 percent of voters and 55 percent of them voted for Obama. When GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney outlined what he would cut from federal spending, it turns out that not only PBS’ Big Bird made waves with voters. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said one of the most influential ads for women voters was one that targeted Romney’s vow to eliminate any funds for Planned Parenthood. Although Republican analyst Kelly Ann Conway said she saw no indication in exit polls that "women's issues" or abortion had been a deciding factor in any race,  Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke, who became Rush Limbaugh's target for defending access to contraception, proved an effective campaigner for Obama. After speaking at the Democratic National Convention, she went on the road with Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood to make the point that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan would be hazardous to women with their very restrictive policies on reproductive rights.

The “war on women” got another high-voltage jolt with two ill-conceived comments about rape by two GOP candidates favored to win their Senate races in Missouri and Indiana. Both of them lost in the general election after having won primaries with Tea Party support. One of them, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who defeated veteran GOP moderate Richard Lugar in the primary, said just weeks before the general election that he could not favor any exceptions for abortion except to save the life of the mother. He said if a pregnancy resulted from a rape, that pregnancy was “something God intended to happen.”  He lost his election to Representative Joe Donnelly, an anti-choice Democrat.

Months earlier, Republican Todd Aikin of Missouri had created a furor by saying women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape" because their bodies would reject the sperm. Nearly all significant GOP leaders denounced his statement, including Romney who urged Aikin to get out of the race. Instead, with some religious right figures praising his stance, he continued running. He lost decisively to Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who had been on the Democrats’ endangered list.

Obama, who won both the electoral college and the overall vote count. In addition to  his big majority of women, he won 70 percent of Hispanic voters and did very well with under-30 voters, as well as winning the overwhelming majority of African American voters.

The only woman running for governor won: Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. This means that New Hampshire has an all-female roster in their top political jobs, including two U.S. senators (neither of whom were up for election this year) and two women contenders for U.S. House seats.

Three Senate races featured face-offs between women. In addition to the Hawaii open seat where Democrat Mazie Hirono defeated Linda Lingle, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kristin Gillibrand won reelection in California and New York.

With some races still too close to call, at least 16 new women representatives will enter the House. Women who won open seats include Democrats Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Suzan DelBene of Washington, Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, Lois Frankel of Florida, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Michele Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Gloria Negrete McLeod of California, Grace Meng of New York, and Dina Titus of Nevada; and Republicans Susan Brooks of Indiana, Ann Wagner of Missouri, and Jackie Walorski of Indiana. Democratic contenders who won include Cheri Bustos and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire.

(Revised: 5 PM, Wednesday)

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