The first two special elections of 2011 have a woman’s touch. And so far, the early crop of 2012 recruits is taking a big step toward adding more cracks to the glass ceiling.
You only have to look at the ballots in the May special elections in New York and California to see evidence that women are already becoming interested in congressional politics this cycle.
In the New York race to succeed former Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y.—who resigned after publication of beefcake photos of the married lawmaker sent to someone who was not his wife—state Rep. Jane Corwin, a Republican, and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, are running.
Two women are the leading contenders to succeed former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who resigned in February to head the Woodrow Wilson Center. The front-runners are both Democrats: California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Los Angeles City Council Member Janice Hahn. Progressive activist Marcy Winograd is also in the mix.
The trend doesn’t stop there. Nearly every serious candidate who has announced early is female. Former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick became the first former member to announce a comeback bid after losing narrowly to Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., last year. Democrats scored a key early recruit when they landed West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel to challenge Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.
Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, who came close to winning a New Hampshire seat in a Republican year, is back for a rematch in 2012. Former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., signaled this week that she’s close to declaring a rematch with Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.
Former Reps. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., could run again, and Minnesota Democrat Tarryl Clark may as well.
Republican women are just as eager to throw their hats into the ring.
Former state Sen. Jackie Walorski came close to knocking off Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., last year. And Sharron Angle wasted no time reemerging from her loss to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to declare for the seat being vacated by Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is running for the Senate.
Although 2010 saw a record number of female candidates in primaries, the last election was the first since 1978 that resulted in a drop in the number of women in the House—although only slightly, from 73 to 72.
The percentage of Democratic women in the chamber rose slightly because of men’s losses, although women’s actual numbers dropped from 56 to 48. Republican women saw their ranks rise from 17 to 24, but their percentage in the caucus stayed roughly the same because of overall GOP gains. In total, 13 new women members were elected in 2010—four Democrats and nine Republicans.
Both parties are actively recruiting women for 2012. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., were instrumental in persuading several women to run, a GOP source said, and they plan to continue their push.
For the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., is chairing recruitment. She emphasized that the committee’s efforts are focused on both genders, but she said she’s proud of the accomplishments of Democratic women in the House and looks forward to several more arriving in 2012.
“I’m not happy about seeing a decrease; it’d be nice to crack the 20 percent,” Schwartz said. Democrats “lost a lot of good people—men and women—and they were in tough seats. We will see some of them come back.”
Kuster saw her chance in announcing early, hoping to build on grassroots support that helped her stay even amid a GOP tide. But she also pointed to the Granite State’s success in electing women; both senators are women, and the state Senate was the first ever to become majority-female in 2008.
“Women bring a lot to the table from their life experience,” Kuster told National Journal Daily. “It’s something that I feel strongly about, that the U.S. Congress is only 17 percent women, and I think it’s time. We’re so far [behind] other professions.”
Jennifer Lawless, the director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, said that it makes sense for so many women candidates to begin putting together a campaign infrastructure nearly 18 months out, but she cautioned against assuming too much based on the preponderance of women among early filers.
“What will be interesting is what happens in the primaries,” Lawless said. “In 2010, people expected greater increase in the [number of] women serving. When you look at the raw numbers and the highest profile candidate, it’s easy to think that women are playing a much bigger role than they may be.”
Conservative women’s groups were ecstatic with the results from 2010, and they see 2012 as a year to build.
“What we’re seeing across the board in elections and in Congress is that women are really stepping up to lead, and women [voters] see them as understanding the issues women really care about right now, including pocketbook issues and moral issues,” said Emily Buchanan, director of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion women running for office.
EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock pointed to the fight over funding for Planned Parenthood and the House GOP’s agenda as a primary reason that her group is seeing more Democratic, pro-choice women interested in running in 2012.
“I think that there are no other words to say other than the stakes have never been higher for American women,” Schriock said. EMILY’s List supports women candidates who support abortion rights. “We’ve got women all over the country who are watching this thinking about [running], and it’s an exciting time.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect transcription of the quote by Emily Buchanan.)
This article appears in the April 1, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.