How a Record Number of Women Won Senate Seats

A number of women were recruited and groomed for political office.

Female senators-elect Mazie Hirono of Hawaii (upper left), Deb Fischer of Kansas (upper right), Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (lower left) and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (lower right).
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Just minutes after Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl announced his retirement after four terms in office, members of a group called Emily's List say they had Tammy Baldwin on the phone. Baldwin, 50 and openly gay, had spent seven terms in the House but never ran for Senate.

"We think it's your time," Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List, says she told Baldwin that day. And, Schriock says, "she agreed."

From there Emily's List, a political action committee that works to get Democratic female candidates elected, says it worked with Baldwin to help develop her strategy, staffing and budget decisions, as it does for many other female candidates.

And on Tuesday, Baldwin was successfully elected to the open Senate seat, beating Republican opponent Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and becoming the nation's first openly gay senator.

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She also joined 19 other women elected to the Senate Tuesday — more women than have ever been elected to the upper house before. There are currently 17.

Of those elected women, the great majority of them (16) are Democrats. It is a milestone not lost on Democratic leaders.

"When I came to the Senate, Barbara Mikulski was it as far as women," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Maryland senator who's the country's longest-serving female in that body. "Now about a third of our caucus is going to be women. Remarkable work done by all the senators to be."

As Democrats gloat over their strides toward better diversity, the Republican Party finds itself in a period of soul-searching. Head of the American Conservative Union Al Cardenas told Politico Wednesday that perhaps the party was just "too old, too white, too male."

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That last qualifier has been a source of contention between the parties. Controversial women's health policies suggested by the GOP led to the phrase "war on women," oft-used in the campaign by the Democrats. Republican candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were also hammered by Democrats after they made controversial comments about abortion and rape. (Both men lost Tuesday night; Akin to a woman.)

But some political experts say more Democratic women were elected to Senate seats this cycle because the party has been more aggressive in recruiting females to run. Washington Sen. Patty Murray is known as the Democratic Party's chief recruiter of women, and groups like Emily's List have raised millions recruiting Democratic women for political office.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says Republicans have recently begun to ramp up efforts to recruit women. ShePAC is a new political action committee dedicated to electing conservative women to office.

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"But in terms of key leadership positions in the Senate where they can make that happen, there is not somebody there" on the Republican side, Walsh says. "The change that you see this cycle is not just because it evolutionary happened. There are organizations out there recruiting, pushing, trying to get women to run. ... And there are more resources out there in general for Democratic women."

Running Start, which trains younger women on both sides of the aisle to run for political office, says what is most important is simply reaching out.

"It's the attention that goes toward telling female candidates what they need to do to win," says the group's executive director and founder Susannah Shakow, "and understanding the barriers they might face."

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Barriers, she says, include scrutiny female candidates receive over their appearance, or over running for office with children, or while pregnant, or for not having children at all. When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had a baby in 2010, for example, there were a number of critical stories about her baby weight.

Both parties are now looking forward to 2014. In two years, 36 states will hold elections for governor, and all are potential seats for women. Governorships are one place were Republicans are beating Democrats in terms of gender diversity, with three Republican women holding governorships, compared to the Democrats holding zero.