Women incumbents vulnerable in fall races

Ten years ago, a combination of congressional scandals and dramatically redrawn district lines allowed a record 19 female newcomers to enter the US House of Representatives, in what became known as the Year of the Woman.

This year, however, the redistricting process and the war have given most incumbents an easy path to reelection – and among the small number who might be ousted, women make up a high percentage.

On the GOP side in particular, the fate of female incumbents could actually determine control of the House. Three Republican women rank among the party's top five most vulnerable incumbents: Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, and Connie Morella of Maryland. Three others – Anne Northup of Kentucky, Heather Wilson of New Mexico, and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania – could also wind up in tough fights.

If Democrats were to win these six seats (and somehow hold onto all of their own), they would regain a majority. On the other hand, if the GOP starts to pull ahead in these races, "it would say to me that Republicans control the House," says Bernadette Budde, the chief political analyst for the Business-Industry Political Action Committee.

At least 10 Democratic women incumbents also face potentially tight races, though none are currently regarded as tossups.

Analysts say it's not necessarily their gender that's making these women vulnerable. "A lot of the women candidates who are vulnerable have been put in that position because of redistricting," points out GOP pollster Linda DiVall.

Others are first-term legislators who captured their seats by slim margins, making them automatic targets this time around.

But with only 18 Republican women in the House overall, the fact that 1 in 3 are facing tough reelection bids (as opposed to 1 in 7 of their male counterparts) points to the uncertain position women still hold in politics – and in the Republican Party in particular.

GOP looks to woo women voters

The GOP has been making a serious effort to attract more women voters into the party and has recently made some inroads, particularly among non-college-educated white women. Last week, the party proudly announced that 465 women voters had signed up to be "team leaders," as part of a new grass-roots networking initiative.

Yet the path for Republican women candidates can still be somewhat rocky. At one end of the spectrum are candidates like Elizabeth Dole, who currently has a commanding lead in her race to succeed retiring Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina (though Ms. Dole's 2000 presidential run was far less successful). But then there are also the experiences of candidates like acting Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts, who unexpectedly dropped out of her race after being challenged for the party's nomination by former Senate candidate and Salt Lake Olympics chief Mitt Romney.

One reason Republican women in particular may wind up in more competitive races could be that they tend to be more moderate – and as a result, are often elected in swing districts, as opposed to solidly Republican ones. "You could argue in some cases that if you didn't have women [candidates], you wouldn't have Republicans in these districts," says Ms. Budde. "If it weren't for these women, there would probably be male Democrats representing these districts, or maybe female Democrats."

Moreover, as the Republican Party has shifted to the right in recent years, it's made it harder for moderates – both male and female – to win, particularly if they face primary challenges.

"When you're running in a primary, you're having to appeal to the extremes of your party," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "And that does make it harder for the more moderate Republican women who are running."

The case of Governor Swift was particularly striking, says Ms. Walsh, because she bowed out in favor of a more conservative male candidate, even though Massachusetts is a strongly liberal state.

Perceived weaknesses

Some pollsters and analysts are predicting that this year could be more difficult than usual for female candidates. The war on terrorism may make voters more inclined to look for candidates who exude experience and authority – areas where women are often still regarded as weaker.

"Generally speaking, when national defense and foreign policy ... are at the top of the agenda, voters do tend to have more confidence in men," says Ms. DiVall. But, she adds, this tends to be more of a factor in gubernatorial or presidential elections than congressional ones. And as voters' concerns shift back toward domestic issues such as healthcare and education, she says, women candidates could find themselves in a stronger position.

Walsh says that as of now, it seems unlikely that there will be much change in the overall number of female members, in either direction – which, with the exception of the gains in 1992, has been the general pattern. "For the last 30 years, it's just been slow, incremental change," she says. "That's really the story of women in politics in this country."

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