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A Gender Insurgency In Politics

By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Men have been making policy in Washington for as long as most of us can remember. But much of the political future rests in the hands of women.

In the narrowest terms, with Democrats needing 15 seats to capture a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, there are 17 highly competitive districts with female candidates.

More broadly, much of the voter mobilization effort in both parties -- and their allied groups -- is aimed at women, especially those who normally vote in presidential years but skip the midterm elections.

That this election could result in placing a woman, Nancy Pelosi, in line to be speaker of the House for the first time in history only emphasizes the growing role of women in setting the political course.

Dennis Simon, a Southern Methodist University political scientist who has studied female candidates for Congress, has issued his statistics describing filings for 2006.

He reported last week that women made up 16 percent of the candidates running in this year's congressional primaries, an all-time high and the ninth consecutive election cycle in which that proportion has increased.

The total of 136 women nominated for House seats this year is only one fewer than the record set in 2004. And odds are good, Simon says, that the number of women elected will be higher this year than the 67 in the last Congress.

Of the 65 women seeking reelection -- 42 Democrats and 23 Republicans -- only six are regarded as vulnerable, all from the GOP side. Three of them -- Reps. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Heather Wilson of New Mexico -- have female opponents, so the maximum loss of seats held by women would be three.

That contrasts with the 53 races in which women are challenging incumbents and the 18 open seats with female candidates.

One of the most heavily contested open seats, Minnesota's 6th District, has opposing female nominees, Republican Michele Bachmann and Democrat Patty Wetterling.

Overall, more Democratic women are in competitive races than Republican women. There are 39 Democratic challengers to incumbents, compared with 14 Republicans. In the open seats, 12 Democratic women and six Republican women are running. Simon credits the disparity largely to the work of groups such as Emily's List, which recruits and trains pro-abortion-rights Democratic women to run and raises money to support them.

Comparable efforts on the GOP side have been far less extensive or successful, Simon said. Martha Rainville in Vermont may be the Republicans' best hope to capture a seat. She is running for a seat left open when independent Bernard Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, decided to seek an open Senate seat.

Democrats have several other challengers in addition to the races already mentioned. Among the potential winners are Lois Murphy, running again after a narrow loss in 2004 in Pennsylvania; Tammy Duckworth, a wounded Iraq war veteran running for an open seat in Illinois; Diane Farrell in Connecticut; Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; Darcy Burner in Washington; Kirsten Gillibrand in New York and Christine Jennings in Florida. Add Wetterling in Minnesota, Patricia Madrid in New Mexico and Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio, and it is a formidable lineup of talent, boosting the Democrats' chances of gaining control of the House.

Backing these candidates is a grass-roots effort to draw more women to the polls. A number of groups, both left and right, are engaged in the campaigns. I bumped into one unusual program, sponsored by the AFL-CIO last week, called "Stirring the Pot." Small groups of women, half a dozen to two dozen, met on Tuesday evening for living-room conversations about health care, education and job security and to encourage each other to vote.

I talked to Monique Schmittou, one of 20 women who met for a potluck supper in Canton, Mich. A single mother who has a teenage daughter and cares for an elderly mother, Schmittou recently was laid off from an auto-parts company for which she had worked 10 years.

Now facing the loss of her health insurance, she joined others in discussing what she calls "a crisis" for many in her community. Before they broke up, they addressed about 250 cards to other Canton women, urging them to vote next month.

It may be that women like these will give the men in power a needed kick in the pants -- to get them moving on the real issues.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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