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U.S. Senate Races—Democrats Look to a Strong Field of Women

Elizabeth Warren 300X228

Several Republican women are also likely to be competitive for open Senate seats in 2012.

Donors and grass roots workers are fired up about defending the six Democratic women senators up for reelection and electing at least four more, says Jess McIntosh of EMILY’s List.

“We have the GOP to thank for it,” she says, after House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party Republicans “embarked on the most anti-family, anti-women agenda we’ve ever seen... whether you’re defunding Planned Parenthood or all of family planning.”

The Democratic political action committee supports pro-choice women and put $38 million in their campaigns. “It’s the Democratic women who are making the case—and effectively—for a Democratic win in 2012,” says EMILY’s List McIntosh.

This could be a tough year to face the voters, however.

The economy improves but slowly, the jobless rate remains high, and voters are “very, very angry and very frustrated,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers.  “I think this electorate is in total flux. It’s near impossible to predict where they’re going to be ten or eleven months from now.”

The only Republican female senator up for reelection is moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine, and she appears to be in good shape. Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison is retiring.

The spotlight is on the six Democratic women senators: Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

McCaskill faces strong Republican contenders, including former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, and Stabenow has to cope with a very depressed Michigan economy.

In addition to the Senate incumbents, the Democrats also are fielding some strong challengers, especially Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts against incumbent GOP Senator Scott Brown, and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin for an open seat but where a former GOP governor has entered the race. Although primary opposition can be fierce in open seats, others expected to have a good shot include Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and possibly Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Susan Bysiewicz in Connecticut. In Nevada, Shelly Berkeley is taking on the Republican appointed after Senator John Ensign resigned earlier this year.

Connecticut's race, where Senator Joe Lieberman is retiring, is also likely to include Republican Linda McMahon, a former wrestling executive who put up $50 million for her unsuccessful Senate bid two years ago. In addition to McMahon if she runs, other Republican women seen as strong contenders include Linda Lingle, a former governor of Hawaii who could face Mazie Hirono, and Heather Wilson, a former member of Congress from New Mexico. These women could face primary challenges from conservatives who think they are too moderate for today’s GOP.

“Clearly the Tea Party is still a force, driving the Republican Party in the direction it’s been going,” says CAWP’s Walsh.

Few Republican Tea Party women are front-tier Senate contenders, however. Laureen Cummings in Pennsylvania and Jamie Radtke in Virginia, for instance, face men who are far better funded and better known.

Another GOP woman who is strong in her own area of Western Nebraska, rancher and State Senator Deb Fischer, faces two powerhouse GOP men from the urban centers in her primary.  In California, a conservative grass roots advocate for children with autism, Elizabeth Emken, faces fundraising challenges to become GOP nominee to face Feinstein.

It’s not clear what the key issues will be for voters in 2012. McIntosh is confident that the Republicans’ onslaught against women’s rights will get out a strong Democratic women’s vote.

Walsh isn’t so sure.

“I still think the motivating factor will be the economy. People are scared. Their livelihoods are at risk. They don’t know how they’re going to pay these bills, to take care of their family,” she says. And three close calls at shutting down government has tried the patience of voters, no matter what their political affiliation.

On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement has changed the debate, focusing attention on the rich 1 percent benefiting from GOP tax cuts while the other 99 percent bears the brunt of spending cutbacks. That may not have blunted the Tea Party crusade to cut spending—but it’s provided much fodder for political pundits and real folks alike.

McIntosh of EMILY’s List says, “Republicans won in 2010 talking about jobs but they abandoned that with this socially divisive agenda.” That left a vacuum for Democratic candidates with “middle class values” to fill.

CAWP’s Walsh says the campaigns of 2012 have to be broader than women’s rights.

“A small group on either side will fall on their sword on reproductive rights issues, but great numbers will vote on economic security,” she says.

“If women can make the case they represent change, they have not been at the table or they have the capacity to work together across the aisle, to have civil discourse about issues—that can play well for women,” Walsh concludes.

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