While the 2006 election's outcome will not be known until next week, it is already clear that the contest will set new benchmarks for women candidates.
"We are seeing record numbers of women running for the [US] Senate and ... at the state legislative level we have a new record for the first time in 14 years," says Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Even without a record number of women candidates running for the US House of Representatives, "we think that for a number of reasons we are looking at a banner year for women, particularly at the federal level," she said.
Ms. Walsh joined Ellen Malcom, president of Emily's List as the speaker at Thursday's Monitor breakfast. Emily's List is the nation's largest political action committee and plans to spend $45 million this year helping elect women candidates who hold a pro-choice position on abortion.
The current political climate favors women, Walsh says. "People are looking for change, voters are looking for change." She adds that, "There is a sense of 'let's throw the scoundrels out' and when those kinds of voters come along, women are seen as the change, they are agents of change and voters look to them...."
While Emily's List founder Ms. Malcolm sees a strong tide running in favor of Democratic women candidates, the organization is taking nothing for granted and focusing on voter turnout. "One of the things Emily's List has been doing is targeting Democratic women who don't vote in non-presidential elections and communicating with them through the mail, through the phones, on the radio, to some extent door to door," Malcolm says. The goal is "to make sure that we get our people to come out and vote in this election. The Republicans have an advantage on this...."
Many political professionals agree with Malcolm that President Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, and the head of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, have assembled a first-rate voter turnout operation.
But Malcolm argues that the conservative social-issues platform that Rove helped craft has lost its appeal to many voters. "The Rove plan was to take political power by revving up the right extreme-conservative base. And he did that by hammering away on their social agenda and turning out the vote. What he has lost is the majority of Americans and he has lost the middle in this process," Malcolm says.
She argues that Rove's strategy "worked for a period of time. It is clearly not working now. What we see and why we are competitive in these heavily Republican districts is because the middle is moving so strongly to the Democrats ... the Rove plan has run out its string."
If Democrats win the House and San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker, Malcom sees that victory helping move women toward the ultimate prize of the presidency.
"I think having Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House is going to send a very wonderful lesson to the American public that women can be strong, they can be tough, they can be effective, and they can lead this country as political leaders. That lesson is not only going to make a tremendous difference, I think, in how the House of Representatives operates, and our ability to try to accomplish something, finally, in Congress," Malcolm says. "But I think it also sets the stage in a very significant way for electing the first woman president."