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Election of Republican women may tip power in D.C., alter party perception

| Sunday, May 18, 2014, 10:10 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., could upset the balance of power in the U.S. Senate if she wins the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat.
West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, is running against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito for the U.S. Senate.

West Virginians this fall will elect a woman to the U.S. Senate for the first time, and the contenders are among 14 women seeking Senate seats, half of them Republicans.

That's significant, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government and women-in-politics at American University in Washington, because it could help the Republican Party demonstrate it is not hostile toward women.

“It can help with refuting the Democrat ‘war on women' message if (Republicans) can say this year they have a solid number of female candidates,” Lawless said, women who are “not only running as sacrificial lambs but in quite competitive races.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant won their parties' nominations last week to compete to replace West Virginia's retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat in the seat since 1984.

“With the primary behind us, it's time for all of us to come together and focus on what really matters — protecting jobs, the economy and our cherished way of life by bringing West Virginia values to the U.S. Senate,” Capito posted on her website.

Tennant's election-night statement forecast a fight: “I view this race as a clear choice between the Washington politics and Wall Street dollars that Congresswoman Capito represents, and the West Virginia values and working families that I represent.”

A win by Capito, considered the favorite, might help tip the balance of power in Washington, some analysts have said.

Democrats have 55 seats in the Senate; Republicans need a net gain of six in November to win majority control. Thirty-three of the 100 Senate seats are contested in regular elections, and voters will decide three more through special elections.

Among the 20 female senators, Democrats hold a lopsided advantage with 16, three of whom — Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire — are up for re-election. One of the Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is running.

On Thursday, Republican National Committee Co-Chair Sandra Day visited Pittsburgh to promote “14 in '14,” the party's push to elect women and court female voters. The RNC hopes to mobilize volunteers to engage women in the 14 weeks leading up to the general election, it said in April when announcing the effort.

The GOP will concentrate on 25 key counties with a large number of independent and “swing” female voters that could affect targeted congressional and gubernatorial races. In Pennsylvania, that includes Allegheny, Berks, Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties.

Republicans historically have lagged behind Democrats in recruiting female candidates for offices in all levels of government, making the party vulnerable to criticism that it is not “in touch” with women.

Though women typically can talk about families and children better than men, Lawless said, she noted that the 2010 elections demonstrated women and men did not vary greatly in terms of traits and issues that mattered to them. Party affiliation can be a bigger predictor, she said.

“We live in a really polarized era now,” Lawless said. “All you need to know about a candidate is whether there is a D or an R in front of their name, not male or female.”

Since the 1992 “Year of the Woman” push by Democrats, the number of women in the 113th Congress has grown to 99 of the 535 seats.

Each party has seven women vying for Senate seats — not just in battleground states but in traditionally Democrat strongholds of West Virginia, Michigan and Oregon.

Top contenders

Like the Capito-Tennant race, the Senate race in Georgia is shaping up to be a seat that could go to a woman — no matter which party wins.

Former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel is in a three-way primary race for two runoff slots with U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue. The winner will face the Democrats' top recruit, Michelle Nunn, to defend the seat opened by the retirement of GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Last year, few political strategists considered Michigan as a possible gain for Republicans. Yet former GOP Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has emerged as a front-runner over three-term U.S. Rep. Gary Peters for the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Carl Levin.

Peters has a small edge, but it's a race to watch, said University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik.

Joni Ernst is among six Republicans seeking her party's nomination in Iowa to square off with Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley for a seat opened by Democrat Tom Harkin's retirement.

Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, has the public backing of the state's lieutenant governor and implied support of Gov. Terry Branstad, making it a toss-up race, Kondik said.

Oregon's Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, could be a great general election candidate for the Republicans if she avoids the stumbles of a first-time candidate, Kondik said, though Oregon remains a tough state for a Republican to win.

“It is the most Democratic state, with a competitive Senate race this cycle,” he said.

A step forward

The solution for anyone fed up with congressional gridlock is to elect more women, wrote Cornell University doctoral candidate Danielle Thomsen. She used Collins of Maine as an example of someone instrumental in reaching a deal through compromise when she led a bipartisan contingent of 14 senators, six of them women, to help end last fall's two-week government shutdown.

“Since compromise is the linchpin of an effective government in our two-party system, the real answer to improving our democracy is electing more Republican women to Congress,” Thomsen argued.

Thomsen, part of the Harvard University-based Scholars Strategy Network, wrote about Collins based on a brief by political scientists Craig Volden of the University of Virginia and Alan Wiseman of Vanderbilt University, which showed: “Women in the minority party reach across party lines and advance their priorities at a far greater rate than men.”

Symbolism matters, Lawless said.

“Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you should have an opportunity to vote for somebody of your party who doesn't necessarily look like a 65-year-old white man,” she said, though she thinks that's a message that will take time to resonate.

“A healthy number of strong Republican female candidates (in 2014) is a step in that direction,” she said.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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