Wave of women candidates for Hill

Some could unseat Republican incumbents, lifting Democratic hopes of a takeover this fall.

It feels like the political version of speed dating: Reporters gather in a room, the candidate is whisked in for a coffee-and-pastry-fueled chat about her campaign, then whisked out to make way for the next candidate, and the next, and the next...

This was the scene last week at the Omni Shoreham Hotel here in Washington, where the political action committee EMILY's List was holding its annual luncheon and trumpeting its "endorsees" - all of them Demo- cratic women who favor abortion rights. The topics of conversation ranged from the Iraq war to immigration to Rahm Emanuel, the head of the House Democrats' campaign committee, but rarely touched on the role of gender in the campaign.

Can it be that having women run for federal office is now so routine that gender barely merits a mention? Perhaps. But at EMILY's List, which boasts its largest crop of candidates in its 21 years, gender is key.

And as the Democratic Party seeks to regain control of Congress - doable with a net shift of just 15 seats - it is counting on these EMILY's List women to play a major role. Of the 24 Republican-held House seats deemed competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, 11 feature Democratic women, all of them getting help from Emily's List. By comparison, of Cook's 11 competitive Democratic-held House seats, only one features a Republican woman contender.

Voter discontent with Washington is high, and women candidates could be the natural beneficiaries of that "throw the bums out" mentality, say experts on women in politics.

"When people get disgusted with politics and they are looking for change, women embody that change," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "There's a sense that women are more honest."

Analysts see some comparisons to the 1992 election - the so-called "year of the woman," when female representation in both houses of Congress jumped from 32 to 54 members; most of the new women were Democrats. Today, 81 out of 535 House and Senate seats, or 15 percent, are held by women (52 Democrats and 29 Republicans).

The small number of competitive races this cycle compared with 1992 means the best women can do in 2006 is a "mini" year of the woman. But the issue agendas are similar: worries over the economy, healthcare, education, and scandal. In the 1992 race, the House check-writing scandal and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings mobilized women. In 2006, the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal and the Iraq war are salient.

"Women are perceived as outsiders, even women incumbents," says Barbara Palmer, coauthor of a new book "Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections."

But, she adds, not all congressional districts are hospitable to women. According to her book, women candidates do best in upscale, urban, and diverse districts, and are least likely to be elected in rural, Southern, and "traditional" districts. The book identifies 135 districts that are "unlikely" to elect women.

Whether 2006 will end up bringing a wave of new women to Congress is too soon to say. "It would be easier for the Democrats if they got their act together," says Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, who suggests that a proactive, positive set of ideas, like the GOP's Contract With America in 1994, would be particularly appealing to women. "Women voters always gravitate toward 'yes,' not 'no.' "

Simply being a woman, however, does not necessarily work to a candidate's advantage, says Carl Forti, spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee. "I think it goes back to the quality of the candidate, period," he says.

New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat who is running for the House, sees being a woman in politics as a double-edged sword. "People make assumptions - they think you can't make decisions," she says. "The upside is that your race gets more attention."

Since Ms. Madrid is facing an incumbent woman - Rep. Heather Wilson - that makes their competitive race more noteworthy. And Ms. Wilson's status as a military veteran (the only woman veteran in Congress), pitted against Madrid's role as the state's chief law-enforcement official, makes for a stereotype-shattering contest.

For now, the biggest race on the political world's radar screen is California's 50th District - the June 6 special election to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Duke Cunningham (R), now in prison for bribery. Under normal circumstances, this heavily Republican district in San Diego would be safe for the Republican candidate, former Rep. Brian Bilbray, but polls show his race against Francine Busby - an EMILY's List endorsee - is close.

This week, a poll for the Busby campaign put her ahead of Mr. Bilbray 47 percent to 40 percent. A poll commissioned by a conservative Republican opponent of the more moderate Bilbray puts Busby ahead 43-37.

Amy Walter, House-watcher for the Cook Political Report, says it's still an uphill climb for Busby, a school board trustee in Cardiff, Calif., who lost to Mr. Cunningham in 2004. But in the current environment, she does not rule out a Busby victory. Neither does the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: It is spending $1.3 million on advertising in the last weeks of the campaign, after spending only $250,000 in the special-election primary.

"It's a close, volatile race," says Ms. Walter. "If she wins, it will be the shot heard round the world."

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