Republican women gain in Congress, but women overall may lose ground

At least eight Republican women are newly elected to the House, and one to the Senate. Four GOP women won their governor's races. But the overall picture for women in Congress is less rosy.

Cheryl Senter/AP
New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte celebrates winning the Senate race in Concord, N.H., on Nov. 2.

For Republican women, 2010 was a great election cycle.

Yes, several high-profile women lost their races: Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. But four Republican women won their governor’s races: Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, and incumbent Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona. In the Senate, at least one GOP woman won, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Another Republican woman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, will make history as a victorious write-in candidate if the numbers hold.

At least eight Republican women have been newly elected to the House, versus four for the Democrats. In the too-close-to-call races, two Republican women and two Democratic women are still in the running for seats.

But the picture overall for women in Congress is less-than-stellar. In fact, when the final races are decided, it’s possible women may lose seats in Congress (House and Senate combined) for the first time in 32 years.

If Senator Murkowski wins, women will hold steady at 17 in the Senate (12 Democrats and five Republicans). In the House, which currently has 73 female members, women need to win in three of the four as-yet-undecided races that involve women to maintain current numbers.

If women hold steady at 90 members, between the two chambers, this will be the first year since 1987 that women have not made gains in numbers. If the number winds up below 90, it will be the first year since 1979 that women have lost ground in Congress.

Republican women could have done even better than they did, if more of the record number of female GOP candidates had won their primaries.

“With a powerful Republican tide, more women could have been swept in, had there been more candidates,” notes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

One Democratic woman, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, lost her reelection bid. If Illinois state Attorney General Lisa Madigan had agreed to run for the Senate, she would have had an excellent shot at retaining President Obama’s old seat. Republican Rep. Mark Kirk won the seat. Assuming Murkowski wins, if Attorney General Madigan had won the seat in Illinois, women would have held a record 18 Senate seats in 2011.

In the House, nine incumbent Democratic women lost their seats, and no incumbent Republican women lost. At least 12 new women – four Democrats and eight Republicans – won election to the House.

Of the four races involving women that remain undecided, two women are currently ahead, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and Anne Marie Buerkle (R) of New York, and two are behind, Rep. Melissa Bean (D) of Illinois and Ruth McClung (R) of Arizona.

Numbers for state legislatures are still coming in. But CAWP already sees a “significant drop” in the number of women state legislators, because a lot of Democratic women lost and many were replaced by Republican men. That will hurt the future of women in politics, especially Democratic women, as state legislatures are a training ground for higher office.

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